Dozens of people have been killed in Nairobi as Islamic militants stormed a shopping mall in the worst terrorist attack Kenya has suffered since the US embassy bombings in east Africa that brought al-Qaida to international attention in the 1990s.
At least 39 people, including many women, children and “very close members” of Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta’s family, were killed and more than 150 wounded when heavily armed attackers pulled up in several cars and shot their way into the most upmarket shopping centre in the Kenyan capital, ordering Muslims out if they could prove their religion by reciting a prayer or answering a question on Islam. They started killing those who failed the test.
Shoppers, expatriates and rich 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 poured out of the mall as undercover police moved in. Some of the wounded were being transported in shopping carts.
Following similar methods to the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai, the assailants barricaded themselves in different shops in the multistorey centre. One wounded gunman was arrested, but later died in hospital.
Somali Islamist militant group al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attacks via a Twitter account. The spokesperson claimed the atrocity was in response to the presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia: “The attack at #WestgateMall is just a very tiny fraction of what Muslims in Somalia experience at the hands of Kenyan invaders,” the account stated. “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.” It continued by saying that the Kenyan government was “pleading with our mujahideen inside the mall for negotiations. There will be no negotiations whatsoever.”
Foreigners were among the casualties. France’s president said that two French women were killed. Two Canadians were killed, including a diplomat, said the Canadian prime minister. Four American citizens were reported injured but not killed in the attack, the state department said.
As shoppers inside the mall made their way to safety, witness accounts of the attack began to emerge. The gunmen carried AK-47s and wore vests with hand grenades on them, said Manish Turohit, 18, who hid in a parking garage for two hours.
“They just came in and threw a grenade. We were running and they opened fire. They were shouting and firing,” he said after marching out of the mall in a line of 15 people who all held their hands in the air.
Witnesses inside the mall reported that the attackers allowed Muslims to leave after the initial attack.
Frank Mugungu, an off-duty army sergeant major, said he saw four male attackers and one female attacker. “One was Somali. The others were black,” he said.
“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, a restaurant with shady outdoor seating.
British foreign secretary William Hague said that there were “undoubtedly British nationals caught up in the callous, cowardly and brutal attack so we should be ready for that”.
Hannah Chisholm, a Briton visiting Nairobi, told the BBC she and 60 others barricaded themselves into a large storeroom. “We kept running to different places but the shots were getting louder so we barricaded ourselves along with about 60 others into a large storeroom,” she said. “There were children with us as well as someone who had been shot. The gunfire was loud and we were scared but at that point we thought the gunmen were thieves so we assumed they wouldn’t try to reach the storeroom.”
Foreign secretary William Hague says a rapid deployment team is on its way to Kenya.
Somalia’s president – the leader of a country familiar with terrorist attacks – said his country knows “only too well the human costs of violence like this” as he extended prayers to those in Kenya.
“These heartless acts against defenceless civilians, including innocent children, are beyond the pale and cannot be tolerated. We stand shoulder to shoulder with Kenya in its time of grief for these lives lost and the many injured,” President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said.
An unknown number of hostages remained inside the mall overnight, but officials didn’t or couldn’t say how many. Two groups of army special forces troops had moved inside as the stand-off stretched into its ninth hour.
In a televised address, President Kenyatta said security forces were in the process of “neutralising the attackers and securing the mall” but he said it was a “delicate” operation. He said the terrorists responsible would be hunted down, vowing: “We shall punish them.”
He added: “I ask God to give you comfort as you confront this tragedy, and I know what you feel, having also lost very close family members in this attack.”
The attacks came as Kenya’s deputy president, William Ruto has been put on trial for crimes against humanity and his boss, Uhuru Kenyatta is due in the dock in November. The charges relate to post-election violence in east Africa’s economic hub at the end of 2007, beginning of 2008. It is unclear whether the terror attacks will affect the proceedings at The Hague.
Kenyan deputy president William Ruto sits in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
The African Union has called an emergency summit for October in a bid to have the trial halted. The death toll in Nairobi will likely be cited by their supporters as evidence that the Kenyan leaders cannot attend hearings in the Netherlands and will be needed to address the threat at home.
Kenya has been braced for an attack of this kind since it controversially intervened in the war against al-Shabaab in Somalia by sending an expeditionary force in 2011. Since then Kenyan troops have succeeded in expelling the jihadists from the southern Somali port city of Kismayo and installing a former warlord friendly to the government in Nairobi.
The mall’s ownership is Israeli, and security experts have long said the structure made an attractive terrorist target.
Civilians who had been hiding in the Westgate mall in Nairobi are led to safety by armed police.
Hospitals in Nairobi were overwhelmed by the number of wounded being brought in following the attack. However, officials said that Kenyans turned out in droves to donate blood and long queues had formed with further volunteers.
Kenyan authorities said they have thwarted other large-scale attacks targeting public spaces, including, in September 2012, the disruption of a major terrorist attack in its final stages of planning. They arrested two people with explosive devices and a cache of weapons and ammunition.
Anti-terror police unit boss Boniface Mwaniki said vests found were similar to those used in attacks that killed 76 people in Uganda who gathered to watch the soccer World Cup finals on TV in July 2010. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for those bombings, saying the attack was in retaliation for Uganda’s participation in the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia.