Kenyan police began an assault to end a siege by as many as 15 al-Qaeda-linked gunmen at a shopping mall in Kenya’s capital after an attack yesterday in which 68 people died and an unknown number were taken hostage.
Security forces have as good a chance “as we can hope for” to neutralize the attackers, who may include women, as the authorities work to ensure the captives are freed unharmed, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta told reporters today in the city. More than 205 people were injured in the raid and 49 are missing, according to the Kenya Red Cross’s website.
“The criminals are now located in one place in the building,” Kenyatta, flanked by diplomats and government officials, told reporters at State House in Nairobi. The Red Cross said yesterday that hostages were being held in the Nakumatt supermarket at the mall. Kenyan officials intend to end the standoff tonight, the Associated Press said, without identifying them.
The raid was the deadliest attack in Kenya since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in downtown Nairobi that killed 213 people. The al-Shabaab Islamist militant group from neighboring Somalia claimed responsibility for the mall attack. The militia had threatened to carry out raids in Kenya after the country deployed its army to southern Somalia in October 2011 to fight the group. In 2010, the militants killed 74 people in an attack at a restaurant and sports club in Uganda.
A large explosion rocked the mall at about 7:45 p.m. local time, the Associated Press reported. Army and police helicopters were seen flying over the area this afternoon.
“Godspeed to our guys in the Westgate building,” the Kenyan National Disaster Operation Centre said on its Twitter account. “Major engagement ongoing. Sporadic gunfire.”
Israeli advisers are helping with a negotiating strategy to end the hostage standoff, Ynet news website reported, citing an unidentified Israeli security official. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev declined to comment when contacted by Bloomberg.
President Barack Obama called Kenyatta today to express his condolences and reiterated U.S. support to bring the attackers to justice, according to a statement from the White House. Several American citizens were injured in the assault, the State Department said.
Two Canadians, including a female diplomat, two French citizens, three Britons, a Chinese and a South African were among the victims, according to their governments. Ghanaian poet and statesman Kofi Awoonor died in the attack, according to an e-mailed statement from Ghana’s government.
Kenyatta, who said he lost a nephew and his nephew’s fiancee in the assault, vowed to hunt down the perpetrators. “We shall not relent on the war on terror,” he said.
The Kenyan leader urged foreign governments not to issue travel warnings because doing so would be a success for “those who wish to cause harm and evil.” Tourism is Kenya’s second-biggest source of foreign currency, after tea. The East African nation is the world’s largest producer of black tea.
The attack at the Westgate Mall in Westlands, 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) northwest of Nairobi’s city center, started at about 12:30 p.m. yesterday. Middle class Kenyans and expatriates frequent the shopping center, which has more than 80 shops including bank outlets, a movie theater, casino, restaurants and a children’s play area.
Two explosions were heard within about five minutes of each other when the attack started, forcing panicked patrons to seek shelter including in the parking area on the roof of the four-story building. The attackers, who lobbed grenades, told Muslims they could go free and that non-Muslims were the target, the Associated Press reported, citing an eyewitness.
The gunmen entered through the main door of the mall and went on a shooting rampage, moving from the ground level to upper floors, according to an e-mailed statement from ArtCaffe, a restaurant in the mall.
“On hearing the gunfire, patrons and staff in the mall ran for cover at every level,” the company said.
Local broadcasters including Nation TV yesterday showed images of people fleeing the mall under the protection of armed security officers, while some clutched children and broke down in tears. Some of the injured were carried out by other survivors or pushed in shopping carts to waiting ambulances, and dead bodies were loaded onto a pickup truck. Live footage from outside the mall today showed Kenyan police and army officials standing guard and cordoning off surrounding streets.
A woman who escaped from the building at about 9:30 a.m. today told reporters at the scene that when the attack began, she dropped to the floor.
“I was all alone,” she said. “Bullets were running over my head.” Hours later, she crawled into an office and locked the door, where she stayed overnight until police allowed her safe passage from the building.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke to Kenyatta and expressed his concern and offered his solidarity as the Kenyan authorities dealt with the incident.
“The secretary-general is following closely and with alarm the attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi,” according to a statement published on the organization’s website.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was “sickened” by the attack.
“It’s been done in the name of terror, not religion,” Cameron said in a posting on his Twitter feed.