AT LEAST 39 people were killed and scores more injured as gunmen, armed with grenades, stormed an affluent Nairobi shopping centre today.
Bodies lined the floors and precincts of the Westgate Shopping Mall, while around 30 shoppers were reported as being held hostage during the attack which was said to have involved up to 10 men, some of whom looked as young as 18, according to witnesses.
Nairobi’s Police Chief, Benson Kibue, described the assault as a terrorist attack, and tonight the Somalia-based group al-Shabaab was reported to have claimed responsibility. According to eye-witnesses, the gunmen told Muslims to leave the centre shortly before midday and said that non-Muslims would be targeted.
Some claimed the attackers had asked, “who is Prophet’s mother?” in an attempt to discover non-Muslims. One man escaped by showing the attackers his ID with his name, Hakim, on it. Another reportedly failed to name the Prophet’s mother and was killed.
Grenade explosions and gunfire sent scores fleeing in panic from shops and restaurants on to the streets, according to witnesses and the Red Cross. Shooting continued hours after the initial assault as Kenyan troops surrounded the mall and police and soldiers combed the building, hunting down the attackers shop by shop. A police officer inside the building said the gunmen were barricaded inside the Nakumatt supermarket, one of Kenya’s biggest chains.
Kenya’s Deputy President, William Ruto, promised that they would “end the siege and get to the bottom of the attack”. “We will bring to account the perpetrators and their accomplices,” he said. Kenya Police said on Twitter that they had detained one of the Westgate Mall suspects.
The Inspector General of Police, David Kimaiyo, said officers had rescued “quite a number” of hostages. He added that hostages were being screened as officers were “not taking any chances”.
Police initially said it was an attempted robbery but later acknowledged that as many as 10 terrorists were involved. Al-Shabaab vowed in 2011 to carry out a large-scale attack on Kenya in retaliation for Somali and Kenyan military operations against its insurgents. Its threatened targets included the shopping centre, which is popular with both affluent Kenyans and Western expats.
British and American citizens are reported to be among the victims. There are no reports of Irish citizens having been caught up in the attack.
Speaking to Independent.ie from Nairobi, Anne O'Mahony County Director for Kenya with Concern said the situation was "truly awful."
Two African members of the Concern staff were caught up in the siege but both managed to escape to safety.
She described how at 11.30am local time the group of 10 gunmen came into the plush Westgate shopping centre and began "shooting as they went along."
The gang then went up to the first floor and made their way out to the car park, where they murdered a further five people.
"They kept hostages with them while others managed to get out. But the group were surrounded and there was some sort of a shoot out," O'Mahony added.
The attack, if confirmed as a terrorist-inspired action, will be the biggest such attack in Kenya since al-Qa’ida bombed the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998, killing more than 200 people. In 2002, the same militant cell attacked an Israeli-owned hotel and tried to shoot down an Israeli jet in a co-ordinated attack in Mombasa.
The Parklands area, where the Westgate shopping square is located, lies about two miles north-west of Nairobi’s congested city centre.
Ten years ago, as property prices rose in the centre, developers looked for cheaper land. The result has been a rapid expansion of a once residential area into one where some of Nairobi’s most expensive and prestigious business headquarters and international banking offices are now situated.
The area enjoys a reputation among wealthy Kenyans for having the best restaurants and nightclubs. The new luxury five-star Sankara, one of the capital’s best hotels, is next to the Westgate shopping area, just off the capital’s main road.
The 350,000 square-foot mall, designed to the latest international retail standards, opened in 2007. According to its website visitors can enjoy tropical gardens, a waterfall and a palm garden, as well as a vast food court in a “safe and serene” environment.
The shopping centre was playing host to the SunGold SunRice SuperChef Junior competition, an on-air cooking event for children, organised by East FM, a local radio station. Around 60 participants aged between eight and 13 years old had signed up for the competition, which was taking place outside in a tented area of the mall.
But by the afternoon it was lined with bodies, and reports surfaced that Ruhila Adatia, a well-known radio presenter attending the event, was among those shot. A spokeswoman for the station said yesterday Ms Adatia had been shot and injured at the mall, but was unable to confirm reports she was dead.
Satpal Singh, who was in a 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,” Mr Singh, 36, said.
Manish Turohit, 18, escaped from the shopping centre after hiding in the parking garage for two hours. He told reporters he saw gunmen with AK-47s and vests with hand grenades in the shopping centre.
The country has seen a rise in terror attacks and threats in recent years, often involving gunmen armed with automatic weapons and grenades. Their targets include bars, nightclubs and restaurants in various parts of the country.
In January a suspected al-Shabaab attack left five people dead and three injured at a restaurant in the eastern city of Garissa, and in August last year one person was killed and six injured in the Eastleigh area of Nairobi on the eve of a visit by Hillary Clinton, then the United States Secretary of State.
Rob Vandijk, who works at the Dutch embassy, said he was eating at a restaurant in the shopping centre when attackers threw hand grenades inside the building. He said gunfire then burst out and people screamed as they dropped to the ground.
One eyewitness, who identified himself as Taha, said he heard the screech of brakes followed moments later by an explosion and then sustained gunfire from the ground floor. Gunfirewas still being exchanged almost two hours later as police combed the shopping centre and cordoned off the surrounding roads.
At least two dozen people, including several children, were wheeled out on stretchers and in shopping trolleys by security guards. Many of the victims had multiple light wounds, apparently from flying debris. Others walked out, some with bloodied clothing wrapped around wounds. Many of the victims were taken to Nairobi’s Aga Khan Hospital, which was one of a number of hospitals to appeal for blood donors to come forward.