By Joseph Akwiri
MOMBASA, Kenya (Reuters) - Suspected al Shabaab militants shot and killed three village elders, including a Muslim cleric, in Kenya's coastal region on suspicion of helping security agencies fight the insurgents, police said on Monday.
Village chairman Juma Mwanyota, religious leader Hassan Mwasanite and a member of local neighbourhood security group, Mohammed Manguze, were shot and killed separately on Sunday in Kwale county, south of Kenya’s port city Mombasa.
Kwale county police chief Joseph Omija said they believed the killers were young recruits who had returned to Kenya from training by al Shabaab in Somalia.
“They (the suspects) think these elders have information about them which they are sharing with us and other security agencies, and that is why they are targeting them,” Omija told Reuters by phone.
Al Shabaab has said in the past its frequent attacks in Kenya are in retaliation for Kenya sending its troops into Somalia in 2011. They are now part of an African Union peacekeeping force. Several raids targeted coastal sites.
The al Qaeda-linked group also seeks to overthrow the Western-backed Somali government and impose its own strict interpretation of Islamic law.
In early May, a young man who had returned from Somalia and surrendered to government was shot and killed by what Omija said was a group of al Shabaab militants.
Coast regional coordinator Nelson Marwa told a news conference in Mombasa they were seeking the suspects in Sunday's killings.
In 2014, a prominent Muslim cleric, Sheikh Mohamed Idris, was shot and killed at a mosque in Kwale county and police linked the killing to his stand against terrorism and radicalisation.
A madrassa teacher who was arrested and charged for the murder was found guilty and sentenced to death.
In 2014, about 100 people were killed by al Shabaab militants in the Mpeketoni area of Lamu County.
Police said in a statement late on Sunday they had arrested four suspects in connection with the killings, and published pictures of eight others they were looking for.
“There are indications that some al Shabaab terrorists fleeing from AMISOM action in Somalia could be making attempts to infiltrate into our country and stage attacks during the holy month of Ramadan,” the statement said.
(Editing by George Obulutsa; Editing by Tom Heneghan)