By Drazen Jorgic
MOMBASA, Kenya (Reuters) - The killings of popular Muslim clerics in Kenya's port city of Mombasa is strengthening support for Somali militants who massacred at least 67 people in a Nairobi shopping mall two weeks ago, a prominent Islamist said on Saturday.
The apparent assassination of Sheikh Ibrahim Omar on Thursday night raised religious tensions in Kenya's commercial and tourism hub.
Young Muslims, streaming out of a mosque where Omar had preached, torched a church, burned tires and fought the police on Friday. Four people were killed during the day-long riots.
Abubakar Shariff, whom the U.N. and the U.S. accuse of funding al Shabaab, said Omar's killing would boost recruitment and support for the Somali group among Kenyan Muslims convinced the cleric was gunned down by Kenyan security agencies.
"After this attack I think more youth will be willing to go over," the Kenyan Islamist told Reuters at his home in Mombasa, a city in which several prominent Muslim preachers have been killed over the past 18 months.
"(The extrajudicial killings) make Muslims realize or sympathize with Al Shabaab because they see a Christian government killing Muslims and they sympathize with them," added Shariff, whose assets have been frozen by western powers.
The Kenyan police have repeatedly denied killing Omar.
"The city is calm," said Robert Kitur, Mombasa County Police Commander, on Saturday as businesses re-opened and cars returned to Mombasa's palm-lined streets.
The U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia has called Shariff a "leading facilitator and recruiter of young Kenyan Muslims for violent militant activity in Somalia" and imposed financial sanctions on him. He denies funding or recruiting for al Shabaab.
One of the Westgate mall attackers was a Kenyan of Arab origin, who was born in Mombasa and travelled to Somalia with his uncle at the age of 16, a Kenya Defence Force spokesman said on Saturday.
A group of Kenyan Muslim leaders on Friday condemned the Mombasa riots and said the police should properly investigate the "extrajudicial" killing of Omar and three other people who were in a car with him.
"Coming in the wake of the deplorable Westgate (mall) attack, the killings point to a worrying and deteriorating security situation in the country which needs to be addressed urgently," the leaders said in a statement.
The drive-by shooting of Omar was strikingly similar to that of Sheikh Aboud Rogo, a firebrand cleric who had been Omar's mentor, last year.
Both men were popular with youths along Kenya's Indian Ocean coastline where many Muslims feel marginalized by the mainly Christian government. They both died on the same stretch of road outside Mombasa, their cars sprayed with bullets.
Shariff said Omar's killing was linked to the deadly raid on Westgate mall, the worst militant strike on Kenyan soil since al Qaeda bombed the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. Al Shabaab have formal links with al Qaeda.
Shariff said Kenyan authorities had been planning to link Omar to the Westgate raid by planting evidence in his car, but this was thwarted by the quick arrival of witnesses on the scene.
The police deny attempting to plant evidence and say Omar's death is being treated as a regular criminal investigation.
Shariff said he believed the Westgate attack was "justified" under Islamic teachings as Kenyan forces were doing the same to civilians in Somalia. The killings of Muslim clerics had made Kenyan security agencies complacent, he added.
"It happen because Kenyan Anti-Terror Police Unit or the Kenyan intelligence started eliminating potential targets ... thinking they removed every threat to the security of Kenya," Shariff said. "Westgate happen because they relaxed."
(Editing by James Macharia and Andrew Roche)