Zanzibar acid attack: finger pointed at radical Islamic group as five arrested over assault on British teenagers
Five men are being questioned by police over the acid attack on two British charity volunteers in Zanzibar as suspicion grew that a radical Islamic group may have inspired the assault.
Katie Gee (left) and Kirstie Trup leaving for Zanzibar
By Mike Pflanz, Stone Town, Zanzibar, Gordon Rayner and Victoria Ward
11:50AM BST 09 Aug 2013
Religious leaders on the Indian Ocean island believe the two men who threw acid over teenagers Kirstie Trup and Katie Gee may be followers of Uamsho, which wants Zanzibar to become independent of mainland Tanzania and impose stricter Muslim rules.
In the past year there have been attacks on Muslim and Catholic leaders on the island, including an acid attack and a fatal shooting.
All of the men who have been arrested were detained late on Thursday and in the early hours of Friday in Stone Town, the capital of Zanzibar.
The two women, both aged 18 and from north London, were expected back in the UK at lunchtime today after being evacuated from Tanzania on a specially-chartered private medical evacuation flight.
“There are five people we have, all men, who we are interrogating over this matter this morning,” said Mkadam Khamis, regional police commissioner in Zanzibar.
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The men were being questioned at the regional investigations office at Zanzibar’s police headquarters. One is understood to be a shopkeeper with whom the women had an argument earlier in the week.
Police hunting the men behind an acid attack on two British volunteers in Zanzibar should focus on a violent Islamic group fighting for fundamentalist rule of the island, religious leaders told The Telegraph on Friday.
A senior Muslim imam, himself disfigured in an acid attack nine months ago, named Uamsho or its followers as the likely culprits for the attack on Katie Gee and Kirstie Trup.
The organisation, whose leaders are in prison awaiting trial for inciting religious violence, was behind crudely-printed anti-Christian leaflets dropped around Zanzibar a fortnight ago.
They want to introduce strict dress codes for women including tourists, restrict alcohol sales and remove the islands of the Zanzibar archipelago from mainland Tanzania’s rule.
“Of course this attack on the tourists was Uamsho,” said Sheikh Fadhil Soraga, a moderate Muslim cleric who suffered extensive burns to his face and hands in an acid attack in November that he blames on the radical group.
“Just 10 days ago they were saying they were planning something. This attack, which all Muslims must condemn, is their work.”
The Reverend Cosmas Shayo, parish priest of St Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral, agreed.
His predecessor, Father Evarist Mushi, was shot dead on his way home from the cathedral in February, and suspicion again fell on Uamsho.
“These people are dedicated only on bringing chaos to further their aims,” he said.
“They want to make the islands only Muslim, and first they wanted to scare Tanzanian Christians, and now they want to scare tourists, who they see as all Christians as well.”
Mkadam Khamis, regional police commissioner in Zanzibar, said his detectives were exploring “many avenues of investigation, including Uamsho”.
“It is too early to accuse anyone directly, but yes we are looking at those people and their supporters,” he said.
Jakaya Kikwete, Tanzania’s president, promised on Thursday that the hunt for the two men on a moped who threw acid at the British women was a top priority.
The close friends, who were volunteering for a charity after finishing their A-levels, had argued with a local shopkeeper days before two men on a moped threw acid over them, burning their faces and bodies.
Katie had also been slapped by a local woman for singing during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and a friend of the girls suggested they may have been singled out because they are Jewish.
Kirstie Trup (left) and Katie Gee (Barcroft)
On Thursday night, Katie Gee’s father Jeremy, a chartered surveyor, said: “I spoke to Katie about an hour-and-a-half ago. We are absolutely devastated. The photographs that I have seen are absolutely horrendous.
“The level of the burns are beyond imagination.
“She is expected to be back later tomorrow morning when she will be rushed to hospital where consultants and surgeons are waiting for the girls to arrive.”
Her mother Nicky Gee added that “her whole face and body is burnt”.
Miss Trup, of Hampstead, north London, is hoping to read history at Bristol University and Miss Gee, of East Finchley, a former pupil at the £5,375-per-term Francis Holland School in Chelsea, intends to study sociology at Nottingham University.
Both girls’ families spent Thursday at the home of Kirstie’s father Mark Trup, a dentist and former director of Bupa Dental Services, where they later issued a joint statement saying they were “extremely upset and distressed at this completely unprovoked attack on [our] lovely daughters who had only gone to Zanzibar with good intention”.
Miss Trup and Miss Gee pictured after the attack (Sky News)
The girls were working for a month at the St Monica nursery school in Zanzibar’s capital, Stone Town, for the Art in Tanzania charity on a trip organised by the Kent-based travel firm i-to-i.
The day before the attack Miss Gee had excitedly tweeted that she had met the former US president Bill Clinton, who was on the island promoting the anti-malarial work of his Clinton Health Access Initiative.
But the girls had also had run-ins with local people.
Oli Cohen, a close friend of Katie, said: “The girls were walking through the town singing during Ramadan when a Muslim lady came up to her shouting. She lost her temper and reacted violently - and hit her in the face for singing.
“They were both extremely shaken up by it. I think white north London Jewish girls walking around in Zanzibar always make them a target as it's a Muslim country.”
Bashir Ismail, of Art in Tanzania, said the girls had argued with a nearby shop owner a few days ago when they went for groceries.
He said that when the attack happened at around 7pm on Wednesday: “The two attackers passed by several white tourists in the area and threw acid after reaching closer to them which raises suspicion of a planned attack.”
Tanzanian police said they want to question Sheikh Issa Ponda Issa, who heads the Council of the Islamic Organisation, a radical Muslim outfit based in Dar es Salaam, who has spent a week in Zanzibar encouraging supporters to demonstrate “like in Egypt” to secure the release of 10 imprisoned members of an Islamic separatist group.
The prisoners are members of Uamsho, which wants Zanzibar to split from the mainland, which it blames for bringing alcohol and Western ways to the islands.
In recent months there have been several attacks on religious leaders, including an acid attack on a Muslim cleric in November and the shooting dead of a Catholic priest in February.
Jakaya Kikwete, Tanzania's president, visited the two teenagers at the Aga Khan Hospital in Dar es Salaam, to which they had been flown from Zanzibar, and described their ordeal as “a shameful attack that tarnishes the image of our country”.
A medical orderly who helped treat the two women on Thursday said he expected them to make a full recovery with the right treatment.
"It has not penetrated deep tissue, it would have been painful but they'll likely make a full recovery," he said.
A street in Stone Town, Zanzibar, listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO (AFP/Getty Images)
The attack on the women came at the end of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, and as people began to celebrate the Eid holiday.
"The motive for the attack on the volunteers aged 18 years, has not been established. Investigations are on until we apprehend the criminals," said Mkadam Khamis, the island's deputy police commissioner.
Zanzibar has long been a favoured holiday destination for foreign tourists, and there have rarely been tensions between the majority Muslim population and holidaymakers relaxing in bikinis on beaches or drinking in bars.
Recently however there have been a series of attacks targeting representatives of different religions.
These include the acid attack on Sheikh Fadhil Soraga in November, and the shooting dead of the Catholic priest in February. Another priest was shot and wounded in December.
The semi-autonomous Zanzibar archipelago lies 20 miles off the Tanzanian mainland.
The Foreign Office travel advice for Tanzania warns that although most visits to the country are trouble-free, "violent and armed crime is increasing".
The advice on its website says: "Mugging, bag snatching (especially from passing cars) and robbery have increased throughout the country."
It adds: "In Zanzibar incidents have taken place in Stone Town and on popular tourist beaches."