A series of large explosions and automatic gunfire rocked an upscale mall in the Kenyan capital where as many as 15 al-Qaeda-linked gunmen have held an unknown number of hostages since an attack two days ago.
Dozens of soldiers, some of them carrying heavy machine guns, and an army tank were seen at the main access road to the Westgate mall in Nairobi at about 1:15 p.m. Thick black smoke was seen billowing from the four-story building. At least 69 people have been killed since the raid began, while 63 are missing, the Kenya Red Cross said earlier today.
“We’ve just managed to rescue some hostages,” Police Inspector-General David Kimaiyo said on his Twitter account after the latest blasts. “We urge the public to stay away from Westgate and its environs for their own safety as we intensify our operations to end this cruel act,” the Kenya Police said in a separate statement.
The attack was the deadliest in the country since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in downtown Nairobi that killed 213 people. Al-Shabaab, the Somali Islamist militant group, claimed responsibility for the raid. The group had threatened to strike Kenya after it deployed troops in Somalia in October 2011 to fight the militants whom it blamed for a series of kidnappings and the murder of a British tourist in Kenya. Al-Shabaab denied the accusations.
The shilling weakened as much as 0.3 percent and traded 0.2 percent lower at 87.50 per dollar by 2:13 p.m. in Nairobi on the first day of trading since the ordeal began. On the Nairobi Securities Exchange, the FTSE NSE 25 Index dropped 0.2 percent to 164.32.
“The risk for an attack on Westgate or another of Nairobi’s upscale malls was high and well known, but also very difficult to prevent entirely,” Clare Allenson, an Africa analyst at Eurasia Group in Washington, said in an e-mailed note. “However, the lack of adequately equipped police first responders and generally poor communication and coordination of early efforts to secure the building underscores the weak state of Kenya’s security institutions overall.”
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who lost a nephew in the attack, appealed for support from the public as security officials attempted to “neutralize” the gunmen and ensure people trapped inside the building are freed unharmed.
“We will punish the masterminds swiftly and painfully,” Kenyatta, 51, said in a nationally televised press briefing. Foreigners including three Britons, two French people, two Canadians, a South African, a Chinese, Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor are confirmed among the dead.
Accelerating growth in Kenya, East Africa’s largest economy, and its reputation as a relatively stable democracy has made the country a regional hub for companies including Toyota Motor Corp. and Google Inc. and the African headquarters for the United Nations.
Kenya’s prestige has already been shaken by International Criminal Court indictments of Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, for their alleged involvement in crimes against humanity. The men are accused of organizing violence following a disputed election in 2007, charges both deny. More than 1,100 people were killed in two months of ethnic and political clashes.
The court today allowed Ruto a one-week absence from his trial, which began on Sept. 10, to permit him to deal with the crisis.
The Westgate Mall caters to wealthy Kenyans and foreigners with about 80 shops that include cafes, a casino, a multi-screen movie theater and a children’s play area. Survivors of the attack hid in air vents, supply closets and washrooms for hours and found different ways to escape including jumping onto a next-door building or were escorted by security officials, some clutching children and crying.
The anarchy in Somalia that followed the removal of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 has given al-Qaeda a base to set up operations for eastern Africa.
World leaders and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have condemned the attacks and offered to help. President Barack Obama called Kenyatta yesterday to express his condolences and reiterate U.S. support to bring the attackers to justice, according to a statement from the White House.
U.S. Representative Peter King, a Republican member of the House intelligence committee, said he’s worried that the group may attack in the U.S. Al-Shabaab is one of the only al-Qaeda affiliates that has actively recruited in the U.S., King said yesterday on ABC’s “This Week.”