Open Doors condemns 'savage' attack by militants on largely Christian town in Kenya

Last night's attack in Mpekitoni is the deadliest in Kenya since that at Westgate mall in Nairobi, September 2013. Stephen, pictured, lost his father during that attack.(AP)

At least 48 people have died in Mpekitoni, northern Kenya, after gunmen opened fire during a five-hour raid last night.

Persecution charity Open Doors has condemned the "savage attack" on the coastal town at around 8.30pm on Sunday.

Staff on the ground in Kenya have confirmed that suspected Islamist militants set fire to buildings – including a police station and several hotels and restaurants – and shot "anyone they found walking around".

They also apparently fired "indiscriminately" into a TV hall where locals had gathered to watch last night's World Cup matches, according to Reuters news agency.

The violence continued as the militants then began entering houses, killing men and torching homes, forcing local people to flee into the nearby forest.

It is thought that Somali extremist group Al-Shabaab are behind the attack, which the BBC contends is the most deadly since the siege at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi last September. Open Doors has confirmed that at least 34 are known to be dead, but the death toll is expected to climb and other agencies are already reporting it to be a minimum of 48.

An Open Doors spokesperson has described Mpekitoni - which lies just 16 miles south of popular tourist destination Lamu - as "like an island of Christianity in the midst of Muslim peoples", therefore making it a prime target for Somali militia who want Kenyan peacekeeping troops removed from their country.

"We do not know yet if any church was burnt but it is important to note that the Mpeketoni population is about 90% Christian surrounded by various Somali ethnic communities," the spokesperson added.

The charity has labelled last night's violence as "the latest tragic instance of the growing insecurity in Kenya's coastal and border regions with Somalia", while the BBC reports that the attack occurred just days after the UK government cited "heightened security threats" as the reason behind closing its consulate in Mombasa.

A local police chief from Mpekitoni, Hamaton Mwaliko, told Reuters that the armed militia have since fled the town, but "our officers are pursuing them".

Mwenda Njoka of Kenya's internal security ministry told a Kenyan TV channel that it is too "premature" to name the group responsible for the attack, but confirmed that "the initial suspicion is Al-Shabaab".