Americans among injured in deadly Kenya mall attack as Al Qaeda-linked Somali militant group claims responsibilityPosted: September 21, 2013
A statement from al-Shabab on its official Twitter feed Saturday says the attacks, which killed at least 39 and wounded 150, including American citizens, are retribution for military action by Kenya inside Somalia. The group said it was now shifting the battlefield to Kenya. Police say they are treating the assault as a “terrorist attack.”
Witnesses say the gunmen asked victims they had cornered if they were Muslim: If the answer was yes, several witnesses said, those people were free to go. The non-Muslims were not.
The group said its fighters entered Nairobi’s upscale Westgate Mall at around noon and were still inside more than nine hours later. Kenyan military special forces had entered the mall in an effort to end the standoff.
Officials fear the death toll could rise further. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper‘s office issued a statement confirming diplomat Annemarie Desloges died along with one other unidentified Canadian.
The statement called Desloges a distinguished public servant of the Department of Citizenship and Immigration who served in Canada’s High Commission to Kenya.
France’s president confirmed two French women were among the casualties.
A statement by Secretary of State John Kerry also noted a victim killed in the assault. “Although we have no reports of any Americans killed today, we have lost a member of our own State Department family: the wife of a foreign service national working for the U.S. Agency for International Development. The men and women of USAID work courageously around the world to help people striving for a better life. While we mourn with her family today, we also pledge our commitment to do whatever we can to assist in bringing the perpetrators of this abhorrent violence to justice, and to continue our efforts to improve the lives of people across the globe,” the statement said.
As night fell in East Africa’s commercial capital, hostages remained inside the mall, 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 the night hours.
Police and military surrounded the huge complex as helicopters buzzed overhead. An Associated Press reporter said he saw a wounded Kenyan soldier put into an ambulance at nightfall, an indication, perhaps, of a final shoot-out inside.
Al-Shabab claimed its fighters had killed 100 people, but the group’s claims are frequently exaggerated.
“We are treating this as a terrorist attack,” Benson Kibue, a police chief said.
The State Department said it had reports of American citizens injured in the attack but had no further details. It condemned “this senseless act of violence that has resulted in death and injury for many innocent men, women, and children.”
The U.S. embassy said it was in contact with local authorities and offered assistance. Some British security personnel assisted in the response.
“The United States condemns in the strongest terms the despicable terrorist attack on innocent civilians today at the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya,” a National Security Council spokesman said in a statement.
“We extend our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of those who have been killed or injured, including the American citizens who were injured and the staff of our Embassy in Kenya who were tragically affected by this attack. We also commend the courageous response by Kenyan security personnel and first responders, including the Kenyan Red Cross, who stepped forward to help their fellow citizens,” the statement said.
“The perpetrators of this heinous act must be brought to justice, and we have offered our full support to the Kenyan Government to do so. We will continue to stand with the Kenyan people in their efforts to confront terrorism in all its forms, including the threat posed by al-Shabaab. This cowardly act against innocent civilians will not shake our resolve,” the statement said.
The gunmen told hostages that non-Muslims would be targeted, said Elijah Kamau, who was at the mall at the time of the midday attack.
“The gunmen told Muslims to stand up and leave. They were safe, and non-Muslims would be targeted,” he said.
Somali’s rebel group al-Shabab vowed in late 2011 to carry out a large-scale attack in Nairobi in retaliation for Kenya’s sending of troops into Somalia to fight the Islamic insurgents.
“The attack at (hash)WestgateMall is just a very tiny fraction of what Muslims in Somalia experience at the hands of Kenyan invaders,” al-Shabab said on its Twitter feed. Another tweet said: “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 (hash)Westgate.”
Witnesses said at least five gunmen — including at least one woman — first attacked an outdoor cafe at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, a shiny, new shopping center that hosts Nike, Adidas and Bose stores. The mall’s ownership is Israeli, and security experts have long said the structure made an attractive terrorist target.
Nairobi’s mortuary superintendent, Sammy Nyongesa Jacob, said at least 23 bodies killed in the attack had been brought in on Saturday. He said Africans, Asians and Caucasians were among the dead.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta says he lost “very close family members” in the attack carried out by “despicable perpetrators” of a cowardly act.
Kenyatta said that hundreds of people were safely evacuated from the mall. He said Kenyans courage and sympathy saved lives and reassured countless people.
He said security forces were responding to the attack. He called it a delicate operation and said a top priority was to safeguard the lives of those still being held hostage.
Terrified shoppers huddled in back hallways and prayed the militant gunmen lobbing grenades and firing assault rifles inside Nairobi’s top mall Saturday would not find them. When the coast was thought to be clear, crying mothers clutching small children and blood-splattered men sprinted out of the four-story mall.
Jay Patel, who sought cover on an upper floor in the mall when shooting began, said that when he looked out of a window onto the upper parking deck of the mall he saw the gunmen with a group of people.
Patel said that as the attackers were talking, some of the people stood up and left and the others were shot.
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 being marched out of the mall in line with about 15 people who held their hands in the air.
Rob Vandijk, who works at the Dutch embassy, said he was eating at a restaurant inside the mall when attackers lobbed hand grenades inside the building. He said gunfire then burst out and people screamed as they dropped to the ground.
It appears the attack began at the outdoor seating area of Artcaffe at the front of the mall, witnesses said.
Patrick Kuria, an employee at Artcaffe, 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.”
Some people were shot at the entrance to the mall after volleys of gunfire moved outside and a standoff with police began. Ambulances continued to stream in and out of the mall area, ferrying the wounded who gradually emerged from hiding inside the mall.
People clutched their small children, and some cried. At one point in the day mall guards used shopping carts to wheel out wounded children.
A local hospital was overwhelmed with the number of wounded being brought in hours after the attack, so they had to divert them to a second facility.
The United Nations secretary-general’s office said that Ban Ki-moon has spoken with President Uhuru Kenyatta and expressed his concern. British Prime Minister David Cameron also called Kenyatta and offered assistance.
Kenyan authorities said they have thwarted other large-scale attacks targeting public spaces. Kenyan police said in September 2012 they disrupted a major terrorist attack in its final stages of planning, arresting 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-Shabab claimed responsibility for those bombings, saying the attack was in retaliation for Uganda’s participation in the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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