Nairobi mall: 39 killed in terrorist attack

2013-09-21 17:18

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Nairobi – Gunmen stormed a shopping mall in Nairobi killing at least 39 people in what Kenya’s government described as a terrorist attack, and sending scores fleeing into shops, a cinema and onto the streets in search of safety.

Sporadic gun shots could be heard hours after the assault started as soldiers surrounded the mall and police combed the building, hunting down the attackers shop by shop. Some local television stations reported hostages had been taken, but there was no official confirmation.

The Somali militant group al Shabaab, which Kenya blames for shootings, bombings and grenade attacks against churches and the security forces, had threatened to strike the Westgate mall, popular with the city’s expatriate community. The chain of attacks follows action by Kenyan forces against al Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia two years ago.

Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab rebels said on Twitter today its warnings of 'severe consequences' for Kenya's military presence in Somalia had been ignored, hours after the attack.

Earlier, police helicopters circled above the mall as armed police shouted “get out, get out”, and scores of shoppers fled the building. Smoke poured out of one entrance and witnesses said they heard grenade blasts.

Others said they saw about five armed assailants storm the Westgate shopping mall and that the incident appeared to be an attack rather than an armed robbery.

“They don’t seem like thugs, this is not a robbery incident,” said Yukeh Mannasseh who was on the mall’s top floor when the shooting started. “It seems like an attack. The guards who saw them said they were shooting indiscriminately.”

Kenya’s interior ministry said: “It is a possibility that it is an attack by terrorists, so we are treating the matter very seriously.”

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta later said he would crack down on those responsible for the terrorist attack.

He said 39 people had been killed and at least 150 injured.

"We will punish them for this cowardly crime," Kenyatta said during a television address.

The president said he also lost family members during the siege.

"I myself have lost loved ones in the Westgate attack," he said.

The raid on the mall was the worst terror attack in Kenya since a bomb attack on the US embassy 15 years ago.

One eyewitness who identified himself as Taha said he heard the screech of brakes followed moments later by an explosion and then sustained gun fire from the ground floor. Some shoppers ran up stairs and escalators and hid around the mall’s cinema complex. Police found another terrified group hiding in a toilet on the first floor. At least two dozen wounded were wheeled out on stretchers and shopping trolleys. Many of the victims had multiple light wounds, apparently from flying debris. Other walked out, some with bloodied clothing wrapped around wounds. Al Shabaab have previously threatened to launch strikes on Nairobi’s tower blocks and soft targets including nightclubs and hotels known to be popular with Westerners in the capital. But they have so far failed to carry out such an attack.

“I personally touched the eyes of four people and they were dead. One of them was a child,” said one former British soldier at the scene.

“It’s carnage up there.”

Asked if the attack was a robbery, one paramilitary officer said: “No, terrorist”.

Police cordoned off the roads surrounding the mall in central Nairobi’s Westlands neighbourhood.

Satpal Singh, who was in another cafe on the mall’s top floor said he ran downstairs when he heard the gunfire and was shot at near the mall’s main exit.

“A Somali guy shot at me. The guy who shot me was carrying a rifle, an AK-47,” 36-year-old Singh said.

» This story was updated after first published.

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