NAIROBI (Reuters) - Somalia's al Shabaab militant group attacked on Sunday a military base in Kenya used by both U.S. and Kenyan forces and published pictures of masked gunmen standing next to an aircraft in flames.
U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) confirmed an attack on the Manda Bay Airfield in Lamu county, close to the Somali border. The Kenyan military said the attack was repelled and that four militants had been killed. There were no immediate reports of Kenyan or U.S. casualties.
"Seven aircraft and three military vehicles were destroyed in the attack," al Shabaab said in a statement in which it claimed responsibility for the assault.
Major Karl Wiest from AFRICOM told Reuters less than 150 U.S. personnel were at the base, where they provide training and counter terrorism support to East African partners.
"Initial reports reflect damage to infrastructure and equipment. An accountability of personnel assessment is underway," AFRICOM said in a press release.
The assault that began before dawn lasted around four hours, witnesses and military sources told Reuters.
Kenyan military spokesman Colonel Paul Njuguna said the base was now secure.
"This morning at around 5:30 am an attempt was made to breach security at Manda Air Strip. The attempted breach was successfully repulsed," he said.
"The airstrip is safe. Arising from the unsuccessful breach a fire broke out affecting some of the fuel tanks located at the airstrip. The fire has been put under control."
At least four militants were killed, Njuguna said.
There was no indication the militants had managed to enter the base. The airfield is separate to another on Manda Island used by commercial flights to Lamu.
Kenya sent troops into Somalia in 2011 after a spate of cross-border attacks and kidnappings. They were later absorbed into an African Union peacekeeping force, now 21,000-strong, that supports the shaky, Western-backed Somali government. Al Shabaab has been fighting for more than a decade to overthrow the government and impose strict Islamic law.
Independent investigator Benjamin Strick, who analyses satellite imagery for open source investigation websites like Bellingcat, said the photos of gunmen next to a burning plane published by al Shabaab photos matched satellite images of buildings and a distinctive aircraft apron adjacent to the base but outside its perimeter.
EXPLOSION IN THE DARK
Residents on nearby Lamu Island, a haven for wealthy tourists and visiting European royalty, say a loud explosion jolted them awake before 4 a.m. Abdalla Barghash said he later saw a large dark plume of smoke rising from the Manda Bay mainland, where the airstrip and base are located.
Resident Omar Ali said he was on the way to his farm when he heard a huge bang and saw smoke. Fellow farmers reported sustained gunfire, he said. The gunfire was still going on four hours later, a military source said.
Lamu county, which is far more impoverished than the island, is frequently targeted by al Shabaab with roadside bombs and ambushes on travelers or attacks on isolated villages. The insurgents killed three passengers when they attacked a bus in the county on Thursday.
The group carried out a similar raid in September on Baledogle base in Somalia, which is used by both Somali special forces and American troops. All the attackers were killed and the base was not breached.
It comes nearly a year after al Shabaab launched a deadly suicide attack on an upscale hotel and office complex in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, killing 21 people.
(Additional reporting by Humphrey Malalo, Feisal Omar and Katharine Houreld. Writing by Katharine Houreld and Elias Biryabarema; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Raissa Kasolowsky)