A burst of gunfire erupted Sunday morning from the upscale Kenyan mall that has been the site of a hostage standoff with Islamic extremist attackers. Moments later, two wounded Kenyan security forces were carried out of the Westgate shopping mall.
Kenya’s Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Lenku said Sunday morning that 59 people have been killed and some 175 injured in the attack.
Lenku said that about 1,000 people have been rescued so far from the mall, and that there are 10–15 attackers involved. He said that Kenyan forces have control of the security cameras inside the mall, which is surrounded by a combination of military personnel and police.
Kenyan authorities said earlier that the Islamic extremist attackers held an unknown number of hostages inside the mall.
The radical rebel group al-Shabab from neighboring Somalia claimed responsibility for the attack, which specifically targeted non-Muslims, saying it was retribution for the Kenyan forces’ 2011 push into Somalia. The group threatened more attacks.
After assaulting the mall Saturday afternoon, the attackers were surrounded by a combined police and military force throughout the night. Trucks brought a fresh contingent of soldiers from the Kenya Defense Forces to the mall shortly after dawn Sunday morning.
Kenyans and foreigners, including French and Canadian citizens, were among those confirmed dead. “Violent extremists continue to occupy Westgate Mall. Security services are there in full force,” said the US Embassy in an emergency text message issued Sunday morning.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said Saturday that he had lost “very close family members” in the attack carried out by “despicable perpetrators.”
Kenyatta said that hundreds of people were safely evacuated from the mall. He said the response to the attack was a delicate operation and that a top priority was to safeguard the lives of those still being held hostage.
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.
The attack began shortly after noon on Saturday with bursts of gunfire and grenades. 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.
AP reported that the cafe attacked is called Artcaffe; Kenyan websites said the cafe is owned by local Israelis.
Gilad Millo, a Nairobi-based Israeli, said two Israeli men and a woman who were in the mall when the attack began were unharmed and safe.
Yariv Kedar, one of the three Israelis who was in Artcaffe at the time, told Channel 2 he “heard the gunfire getting closer” and bullets whizzed “over our heads” before he managed to escape.
“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.
Al-Shabab, on its Twitter feed, said that it has many times warned Kenya’s government that failure to remove its forces from Somalia “would have severe consequences.” The group claimed that its gunmen had killed 100 people, but its claims are frequently exaggerated.