Somali Islamists kill 39 in Kenyan mall standoff
NAIROBI, Kenya — Gunmen stormed a popular high-end shopping mall in the Kenyan capital on Saturday afternoon, lobbing grenades and firing weapons in an attack that left at least 39 people dead and more than 150 injured, Kenyan officials said.
As of early Sunday, more than 12 hours after the initial assault, the attackers, strapped with grenades and wielding machine guns and AK-47 rifles, remained holed up with scores of hostages in a supermarket within the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall, exchanging gunfire with Kenyan police and soldiers.
Al-Shabab, a Somali terroist group linked to al-Qaida, asserted responsibility for the assault in numerous tweets using its official Twitter handle, @HSM—Press. The militia said it was retaliating for Kenya sending troops to fight in neighboring Somalia, where it remains a key military actor. “For long we have waged war against the Kenyans in our land, now it's time to shift the battleground and take the war to their land,” the militia tweeted.
Witnesses said at least five gunmen — including at least one woman — first attacked an outdoor cafe at the mall, a shiny, new shopping center that includes Nike, Adidas and Bose stores. The mall's ownership is Israeli, and security experts have long said the structure made an attractive terrorist target.
The attack began shortly after noon with bursts of gunfire and grenades.
Shoppers — expatriates and affluent Kenyans — fled in any direction that might be safe: into back corners of stores, back service hallways and bank vaults. Over the next several hours, pockets of people trickled out of the mall as undercover police moved in. Some of the wounded were trundled out in shopping carts.
“We started by hearing gunshots downstairs and outside. Later we heard them come inside. We took cover. Then we saw two gunmen wearing black turbans. I saw them shoot,” said Patrick Kuria, an employee at Artcaffe, the restaurant with shady outdoor seating.
Terrified shoppers prayed they would not be found by the Islamic extremists. The gunmen told hostages that non-Muslims would be targeted, said Elijah Kamau, who was in the mall.
“The gunmen told Muslims to stand up and leave. They were safe, and non-Muslims would be targeted,” he said.
When the way appeared clear, crying mothers clutching small children and blood-splattered men sprinted out of the four-story mall.
The dead and injured included young and old, Kenyans and foreigners, said witnesses and a State Department official familiar with the situation. No Americans were believed to be among the dead, the official said, but at least three were injured.
Two French women and two Canadians were killed, including a diplomat.
The State Department condemned “this senseless act of violence that has resulted in death and injury for many innocent men, women and children.”
In a separate statement, a White House spokeswoman said some staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya have been “tragically affected” by the attack. No other information was provided.
“The perpetrators of this heinous act must be brought to justice, and we have offered our full support to the Kenyan Government to do so,” said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council.
Annamaria Watrin, an American aid worker from Minnesota, said a friend and his 13-year-old daughter had gone to the mall for a birthday party. “As they went to park their car, she saw five gunmen pop out. They shot her dad. He died,” Watrin said. The girl was injured. Watrin said the girl spent several hours crouched in the car before Kenyan security agents could evacuate her into an ambulance.
The assault was the deadliest terrorist attack in this East Africa nation since al-Qaida operatives staged twin bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1998, killing more than 200 people in Kenya.
Al-Shabab has staged numerous smaller attacks in the country since the government sent troops to Somalia in October 2011 to fight the militia. Most of those assaults targeted bus stations and churches, but never areas frequented by Westerners and wealthy Kenyans. The tourism industry is Kenya's second-largest source of foreign exchange, and dozens of Western aid agencies and businesses are based in the country.
The attack has appeared to usher in a new war on its soil for Kenya, long a bulwark of stability in the region and a key U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism.
In a nationally televised address, President Uhuru Kenyatta vowed to hunt down the perpetrators.
“We have overcome terrorist attacks before. We will defeat them again,” Kenyatta said, adding that some of his close relatives were among the dead.
Nairobi's mortuary superintendent, Sammy Nyongesa Jacob, said Africans, Asians and Caucasians were among the bodies brought to the mortuary.
“We have taken so many to the hospital,” said Zulekha Khalid, a Kenyan Red Cross worker taking cover behind a police truck as a barrage of bullets was fired from the direction of the mall.
Early Sunday, a police officer inside the shopping center said that the remaining gunmen were barricaded inside a Nakumatt supermarket, one of Kenya's biggest chains.
The Kenya National Disaster Operation Center said an unknown number of shoppers and staff were being held by the gunmen.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.