Masked gunmen were on Thursday holding an "unknown number" of hostages after storming a university in northeast Kenya, close to the border with Somalia, killing at least two people and wounding scores. Gunfire could still be heard at least six hours after the pre-dawn assault in Garissa began as Kenya's interior ministry said the "attackers have been cornered in one hostel."
At least two people were killed and 30 suffered gunshot wounds. Four of the most critically injured were flown to the capital Nairobi for emergency medical treatment, Kenya's official National Disaster Operation Centre said.
The Kenya Red Cross which is leading the medical response to the attack said there were "an unknown number of student hostages" although "50 students have been safely freed". "Gunmen forced their way into Garissa University by shooting at the guards manning the main gate at around 5:30 am," said Kenya Police Chief Joseph Boinet.
"The gunmen shot indiscriminately while inside the university compound."
The town of Garissa is around 150 kilometres (90 miles) west of Somalia and has in the past been targeted by militants from the Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab. Shebab officials contacted by AFP made no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.
The sprawling campus, on the outskirts of the garrison town, has both teaching areas as well as residential blocks. The university has several hundred students from different parts of Kenya. The number of teachers and students trapped inside the campus was unclear as gunfire and explosions were heard coming from the site.
"Police... engaged the gunmen in a fierce shootout, however the attackers retreated and gained entry into one of the hostels," Boinet said, adding that reinforcements had arrived and were "flushing out the gunmen".
A witness, Ahmed Nur, said he saw the bodies of two university guards, shot by the attackers. Kenya Red Cross, quoting local health officials, said that 30 people had been taken to hospital, "the majority" with gunshot wounds.
Kenya has been hit by a wave of grenade and gun attacks, often blamed on sympathisers of Somalia's Shebab Islamist fighters and sometimes aimed at police targets, since the army crossed into southern Somalia in 2011 to attack Islamist bases.
A series of foreign travel warnings in response to the threat have crippled Kenya's economically important tourism industry. On Wednesday, just hours before the attack in Garissa began, President Uhuru Kenyatta said Kenya "is safe as any country in the world".
Kenya's government has been under fire since the September 2013 Shebab attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, in which at least 67 people were killed in a siege involving just four gunmen and which lasted four days.
In June and July last year Shebab gunmen killed close to 100 people in a series of attacks on the town of Mpeketoni and nearby villages. In November Shebab claimed responsibility for holding up a bus outside Mandera town, separating passengers according to religion and murdering 28 non-Muslims. Ten days later 36 non-Muslim quarry workers were also massacred in the area.
Students in Garissa on Thursday reported seeing up to four masked gunmen entering the university compound before dawn. The area surrounding the university was sealed off by the Kenya security forces and the army called in.