NAIROBI, Kenya — 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.
The al-Qaeda-linked gunmen asked the 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.
Somalia’s militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility and said the attack was retribution for Kenyan forces’ 2011 push into Somalia. The group threatened more attacks.
The assault killed at least 39 people, officials said, with fears the toll could rise further. 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 its ninth hour.
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.
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 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 the 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, the restaurant with shady outdoor seating.
Frank Mugungu, an off-duty army sergeant major, said he saw four male attackers and one female attacker. “One was Somali. The others were black,” he said.
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.
“The attack at #WestgateMall is just a very tiny fraction of what Muslims in Somalia experience at the hands of Kenyan invaders,” al-Shabab said. 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 #Westgate.”
Al-Shabab threatened in late 2011 to unleash a large-scale attack in Nairobi. Kenya has seen a regular spate of grenade attacks since then but never such a large terrorist assault.
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.
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.”
Another witness, an Israeli in Nairobi, told Army Radio that the gunmen took control of the mall and stationed guards at the entrances.
According to reports on CNN, the attackers may have also taken hostages.
Police forces arrived at the scene and were still seeking to capture all the gunmen late Saturday.
The mall was hosting a children’s day event, witnesses said.
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.
Manish Turohit, 18, said he saw gunmen with AK-47s and vests with hand grenades on them inside the mall before he escaped to hide 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 appeared 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 were gradually emerging from hiding inside the mall.
Many of those running from the mall clutched small children. Others were crying. Mall guards used shopping carts to wheel out wounded children.
Journalists at the mall said they saw at least 10 dead bodies and dozens wounded hours after the attack began.
The Westgate Mall is situated in Nairobi’s affluent Westlands area and is frequented by expatriates and rich Kenyans. Millo said it was “the most popular spot in Nairobi” for Israelis and Westerners.