At least 39 people were killed when masked gunmen stormed an upscale Nairobi mall, Kenya’s president said on Saturday. Al Shabaab militants said the attack was retaliation for Kenya’s involvement fighting Islamists in neighbouring Somalia.
Masked gunmen killed 39 people when they stormed an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a televised address on Saturday, adding that he lost family members in the attack claimed by Somalia’s al Qaeda-inspired al Shabaab rebels.
Kenyatta said he lost “very close” family members in the attack, describing those behind it as “despicable”.
France’s presidential palace confirmed that two French nationals were among those killed.
The Islamist rebels said the massacre was in direct retaliation for Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia, where African Union troops are battling the Islamists.
“The Mujahideen entered #Westgate Mall today at around noon and are still inside the mall, fighting the #Kenyan Kuffar (infidels) inside their own turf,” the group said on Twitter.
A security source said police and soldiers had finally “pinned down” the gunmen after hours of fierce gunbattles and painstaking evacuations, with police going shop to shop to secure the Westgate shopping mall.
“The attackers have been isolated and are pinned down in an area on one of the floors. The rest of the mall seems to be secure,” the source told AFP at the scene.
Police at the scene said a suspect wounded in the firefight had been detained and taken to hospital under armed guard.
Senior police sources described the attackers as a well-organised “terror gang” numbering around 10. The mall, popular with wealthy Kenyans and expatriates and part Israeli-owned, was packed with around 1,000 shoppers when it was besieged at midday.
The Shabaab tweet said the group’s warnings over Kenya’s military presence in Somalia had been ignored.
Shabaab “on numerous occasions warned the Kenyan government that failure to remove its forces from Somalia would have severe consequences,” it said.
“The Kenyan government, however, turned a deaf ear to our repeated warnings and continued to massacre innocent Muslims in Somalia #Westgate,” the group tweeted via its @HSM_Press account.
“The attack at #WestgateMall is just a very tiny fraction of what Muslims in Somalia experience at the hands of Kenyan invaders,” it said.
Kenyan forces entered Somalia two years ago to fight the Shabaab, and remain in the country as part of an African Union force that is supporting Somalia’s internationally backed government.
‘Senseless act of violence’
An eyewitness told AFP that he heard the gunmen speaking Arabic or Somali and saw the group executing shoppers, in what was the worst attack in Nairobi since an al Qaeda bombing at the US embassy killed more than 200 in 1998.
The Red Cross said another 60 had been wounded in the attack.
“We have reports of American citizens injured in the attack, and the US embassy is actively reaching out to provide assistance,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said without elaborating, citing privacy concerns.
“We have reports there were up to 10 or so attackers and they appeared to be wearing a similar outfit, and others covered their faces,” a police official said. “The pattern of the attack and the way they were speaking to their targets clearly point to a well-planned attack by a terror gang.”
Kenyan troops could be seen moving around and inside the shopping centre while special forces had joined the operation. An AFP reporter said she saw at least 20 people rescued from a toy shop. Dozens of wounded, some of them bleeding children, were taken away from the mall on stretchers.
‘I saw people being executed’
A shop manager who managed to escape said at one point “it seemed that the shooters had taken control of all the mall”.
“They spoke something that seemed like Arabic or Somali,” said a man who escaped the mall and gave his name only as Jay. “I saw people being executed after being asked to say something.”
Shocked people of all races could be seen running away from the Westgate centre clutching children while others crawled along walls to avoid stray bullets.
Kenneth Kerich, who was shopping when the attack happened, described scenes of panic.
“I suddenly heard gunshots and saw everyone running around so we lied down. I saw two people who were lying down and bleeding, I think they were hit by bullets,” he said.
An eyewitness who survived the assault said he saw the body of a child being wheeled out of the mall.
“The gunmen tried to fire at my head but missed. At least 50 people were shot. There are definitely many casualties,” mall employee Sudjar Singh told AFP.
Vehicles riddled with bullet holes were left abandoned in front of the mall as the Red Cross appealed for blood donations and police instructed Nairobi residents to stay away.
The four-storey mall, which has several Israeli-owned businesses, is a hub for Nairobi-based Westerners and one of the foremost symbols of Kenya’s affluent classes. It opened in 2007 and has long been considered a potential terror target.
The mall is popular with the large expatriate community living in the residential neighbourhoods around it, including with foreign staff from the United Nations, which has its third-largest global centre nearby.
Security agencies have regularly included the Westgate shopping centre on lists of sites they feared could be targeted by al Qaeda-linked groups.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is following the attack “closely and with alarm”, a statement from his office said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Twitter that his country was “in close touch with Kenyan authorities about the attack in Nairobi. Our urgent priority is the welfare of UK nationals”.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)