Gunfire as Kenya forces battle to end deadly mall siege

2013-09-22 16:12

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Nairobi - Kenyan troops backed by Israeli agents battled on Sunday to end a siege in an upmarket shopping mall and free hostages held by Somali militants in an attack that has killed at least 59 people.

Sporadic gunfire rang out as Kenyan security officials said they were trying to kill or capture the remaining attackers and end the 28-hour-long bloodbath at the Westgate mall.

"The Israelis have just entered and they are rescuing the hostages and the injured," a Kenyan security source told AFP. The Israeli foreign ministry refused to confirm or deny its forces were involved.

Terrified witnesses recounted scenes of horror as the masked gunmen tossed grenades and sprayed automatic gunfire in the packed centre, sending panicked shoppers fleeing for their lives.

Somalia's al-Qaeda-inspired Shebabb rebels said the carnage at the part Israeli-owned complex was in retaliation for Kenya's military intervention in Somalia, where African Union troops are battling the Islamists.

Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku said 59 people were confirmed dead, while the Red Cross has estimated the number of injured at around 200, with 49 others missing.

Lenku said there were still between 10 to 15 gunmen in the sprawling multi-storey complex, but it was not clear how many people were still being held.

"We believe there are some innocent people in the building, that is why the operation is delicate."

'We will hunt them'

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta had said in a televised address to the nation late on Saturday that he had lost family members in the attack.

"Let me make it clear. We shall hunt down the perpetrators wherever they run to. We shall get them. We shall punish them for this heinous crime," he vowed.

The Westgate mall is popular with wealthy Kenyans and expatriates, and was packed with around 1 000 shoppers when the masked gunmen marched in at midday on Saturday.

Among the dead were one South African, three Britons, two French citizens, two Canadians including a diplomat, a Chinese women, two Indians and a South Korean, according to their governments.

Also killed was Ghanaian poet and former UN envoy Kofi Awoonor, 78, while his son was injured.

Kenyan Vice President William Ruto has asked the International Criminal Court to delay his trial for crimes against humanity over deadly 2007-08 post election violence because of the mall standoff, his lawyer said.

Security agencies have long feared that the shopping centre could be targeted by al-Qaeda-linked groups.

Condemned

The attack, the worst in Nairobi since an al-Qaeda bombing at the US embassy killed more than 200 people in 1998, was condemned by world powers and the United Nations.

After a day and night of sometimes ferocious gun battles, security sources said police and soldiers had finally "pinned down" the gunmen.

"We are still battling with the attackers and our forces have managed to maroon the attackers on one of the floors," said Kenyan military spokesperson Colonel Cyrus Oguna. "We hope to bring this to an end today."

'People sprayed with bullets'

Mall worker Zipporah Wanjiru, who emerged from the ordeal alive but in a state of shock, said she hid under a table with five other colleagues.

"They were shooting indiscriminately; it was like a movie seeing people sprayed with bullets like that," she said, bursting into tears. "I have never witnessed this in my life. Only God can heal us and our country."

Cafe waiter Titus Alede, who risked his life and leapt from the first floor of the mall, said it was a "miracle from God" that he managed to escape the approaching gunmen.

"I was serving a client and these men came. They were not after money as they were shooting people without asking for anything. I remember them saying 'you killed our people in Somalia, it is our time to pay you back'," he said.

One teenage survivor told how he played dead to avoid being killed.

"I heard screams and gunshots all over the place. I got scared. I tried to run down the stairs and saw someone running towards the top, I ran back and hid behind one of the cars," 18-year-old Umar Ahmed told AFP.

In the hours after the attack began, shocked people of all ages and races could be seen running from the mall, some clutching babies, while others crawled along walls to avoid stray bullets.

Kenyan police, troops and special forces then moved in and went shop-to-shop. Foreign security agents - from Israel as well as the United States and Britain - were also seen at the complex throughout the drama.

An AFPTV reporter said she saw at least 20 people rescued from a toy shop, some of them children taken away on stretchers.

Israeli interests previously attacked

A spokesperson for Shebab said the attack was in retaliation for Kenya's nearly two-year-old military presence in war-torn Somalia in support of the internationally backed Mogadishu government.

"We have warned Kenya of that attack but it ignored [us], still forcefully holding our lands... while killing our innocent civilians," Shebab spokesperson Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage said in a statement.

"If you want Kenya in peace, it will not happen as long as your boys are in our lands."

The group also issued a string of statements via Twitter, one of them claiming that Muslims in the centre had been "escorted out by the Mujahideen before beginning the attack".

Israeli interests in Kenya have come under attack before. In November 2002 there were two simultaneous attacks in the Mombasa area. A missile targeted an Israeli charter flight as it took off from the port city's airport, but missed.

At the same time a car packed with explosives smashed into the Paradise hotel, the only Israeli-owned hotel in the Mombasa area, as Israeli tourists were checking in. Ten Kenyans and three Israelis died.

Read more on:    kenya  |  kenya mall attack  |  east africa

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