MOMBASA Kenya (Reuters) - At least 48 people were killed when gunmen in two minibuses sped into a town on Kenya's coast, shooting soccer fans gathered to watch a World Cup match in a television hall and targeting hotels and a bank, police and witnesses said on Monday.
Police said Somalia's Al Shabaab Islamist group was most likely to blame for Sunday night's assault on the town of Mpeketoni, which lies on the Indian Ocean coastline that runs north from Kenya's main port of Mombasa to the Somali border.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the assault, the latest in a spate of gun and bomb attacks in recent months that have hurt Kenya's struggling tourist industry.
Kenya had said it would be on alert during the World Cup to ensure public showings of matches were kept safe.
"The attackers were so many and were all armed with guns. They entered the video hall where we were watching a World Cup match and shot indiscriminately at us," Meshack Kimani told Reuters by telephone. "They targeted only men but I was lucky. I escaped by hiding behind the door."
Sunday's assault is the worst since last September when Al Shabaab gunmen attacked Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall, leaving 67 people dead.
After Westgate, Al Shabaab warned of more attacks, saying they were determined to drive Kenyan troops out of Somalia. Kenya, whose soldiers are deployed as part of an African peacekeeping force battling militants, says it won't pull out.
The gunmen raced into Mpeketoni in two minibuses, the kind used as public taxis in Kenya, and hit two hotels, a bank and a police station with guns and at least one explosive device. Witnesses said there were about 30 gunmen involved.
"More bodies have been recovered and right now we are talking about 48 dead persons," Leonard Omollo, Lamu County police commander, told Reuters on telephone. "All the dead are men. There are no women or children."
Those killed include a policeman who worked as a driver for a police chief in the town, said David Kimaiyo, the inspector general of Kenya's police. Many Mpeketoni residents fled from the attack into nearby forests, he said.
Police said no arrests had yet been made and said an investigation was underway to determine whether militants or a criminal gang had carried out the attack.
"Right now it is still premature to say who is behind the attack until investigations are done, but the initial suspicion is Al Shabaab," Mwenda Njoka, spokesman of Kenya's internal security ministry, told a Kenyan television channel.
Al Shabaab bombed crowds watching World Cup soccer matches on television in the Ugandan capital Kampala in 2010, killing 77 people. Uganda also has troops in Somalia.
There were no immediate reports of foreign visitors being hurt in Sunday's attack. Mpeketoni is not a major holiday destination, but the assault could further damage the tourist industry as it lies just 30 km (20 miles) from Lamu, a historic Arab trading port that is a popular attraction.
The Kenya Red Cross said at least two of the casualties had been evacuated to a hospital in Lamu.
Kenyan hotels say bookings have dropped sharply because of recent attacks and in the wake of warnings by Western nations about travel to Kenya. Some hotels on the coast say they face closure, while some hoteliers in land who offer safari trips say reservations are down by 30 percent or more.
A Reuters television reporter in Mpeketoni saw at least six bodies strewn on roads in the town. Ten burnt-out vehicles were also seen in the area and a Kenyan bank branch was gutted in the attack, the reporter said.
The Interior Ministry said it had sent up surveillance aircraft to scan the area. A Reuters witness saw two military helicopters patrolling over the town on Monday morning.
(Reporting by Joseph Akwiri; Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Gareth Jones)