SAMBURU (KENYA) — Four people including three police officers were killed and five other officers injured in an ambush by cattle rustlers in Samburu East Samburu County of northern Kenya the police said.

Samburu County Police Commander Alfred Ageng’o said the three police officers were killed while on a recovery mission of stolen animals from Isiolo County on Wednesday.

Ageng’o said the officers were attacked by armed Samburu bandits at Ol Kanjau area but added that a major security operation is underway to recover the animals.

“The attack occurred as police officers were loading the recovered stock on to the vehicle. Three police officers died on the spot while five officers escaped with gun shot injuries and are undergoing treatment at Isiolo referral hospital” Angeng’o said.

The rustlers managed to drive away the animals before reinforcement arrived at the scene. The police commander said the fourth person who was killed was a peace crusader who had accompanied the officers to the area.

Ageng’o added the survivors had multiple injuries out of shooting. “More security personnel have been deployed to the area to pursue the assailants” Ageng’o said.

Clashes between the rival cattle herding pastoralists are common in northern Kenya with herders often carrying guns to protect their animals but the recent fighting has been unusually heavy.

On March 24 ten people were killed and several others injured in a clash between herders and suspected cattle rustlers at Lopurio. The suspects are believed to be from neighboring West Pokot and Baringo counties.

In 2017 more than a dozen security personnel were killed in the same area in similar circumstances. Another group of 42 officers had been killed in nearby Suguta Valley in an ambush in 2012.

Livestock herding is the main source of income in northern and some parts of eastern Kenya and police say cattle thefts threaten to ignite cross-community reprisals and raids that could set the stage for a surge in ethnic fighting.