MOMBASA - Hundreds of armed raiders killed at least 38 villagers and torched more than 150 houses on Monday in the latest fighting between rival tribes in a dispute over land and water in Kenya's coastal region.
A local official called for the military to be sent to the Tana Delta area as the police struggled to defuse tension between the Pokomo and Orma tribes.
More than 100 people have been shot, hacked and burnt to death in the last three weeks as the two sides take revenge for the other's killings.
The land clashes and deadly riots in the port city of Mombasa following the killing of a radical Muslim preacher last month have raised the prospect of a surge in unrest along the coast ahead of a presidential election next March.
"We will soon recommend to the government to send military officers down there to help us restore order," Samuel Kilele, the provincial commissioner in Coast province, said.
Jillo Dabacha, who chairs a community security group in the trouble zone, said about 300 attackers armed with spears, bows and arrows and guns surrounded the Orma village and attacked a nearby police camp in a coordinated strike.
"They wanted to prevent the police from interfering with their attack on the village," Dabacha told Reuters by telephone.
Settled Pokomo farmers and semi-nomadic Orma pastoralists have clashed intermittently for years over access to grazing, farmland and water. The violence broke out again last month after the Pokomo accused the pastoralists of grazing cattle on their land and massacred more than 50 Orma villagers.
AWASH WITH GUNS
The Kenyan Red Cross said the death toll from Monday morning's attack on Kilelengwani village was 38 people, including nine police officers, and that it was considering pulling its local staff out of the Tana Delta.
Kenya's Indian Ocean coast is a major tourist destination but many Kenyans accuse the government of a decades-long economic and political marginalisation of the region, creating deep social divisions.
Zipporah Wamboi, a secondary school teacher in the Tana Delta, said there were often food shortages and very limited access to clean water.
"People drink from the swamps and the crocodile-infested Tana River. The plight of these people has been ignored for years now and something must be done quickly," Wamboi said.
Wamboi also said many in the area were armed.
"Many of us believe that there is a political instigation to this violence. This violence always take a high crescendo when the political temperatures start take root," Hassan Omar, a lawyer and former commissioner at the Kenya National Commission for Human Rights, told Reuters.
Prime Minister Raila Odinga visited the area after an earlier attack but government efforts have so far failed to ease the tensions.
Cattle rustling and clashes over grazing and farming land are relatively common between communities in arid areas of east Africa and often escalate into revenge attacks.
An influx of weapons across Kenya's borders, in particular from war-ravaged Somalia, had made the situation more violent.