Attackers storm Nairobi mall, killing at least 30

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An aerial of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

An aerial of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Kenyan parliamentarian building, Nairobi

English: Kenyan parliamentarian building, Nairobi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gunmen threw grenades and opened fire at a mall Saturday, killing at least 20 people. Witnesses say the attackers targeted non-Muslims.

NAIROBI — Gunmen stormed a popular high-end shopping mall in the Kenyan capital Saturday afternoon, lobbing grenades and firing weapons in an attack that left at least 30 people dead, dozens injured and scores of shoppers and store employees trapped.

On Saturday night, the al-Qaeda-linked Somali militia al-Shabab appeared to claim responsibility for the assault, saying it was in retaliation for Kenya sending troops to fight in neighboring Somalia, where it remains a key military actor. In a tweet from the group’s official Twitter handle, @HSM_Press, the militia said that it “has on numerous occasions warned the #Kenyan government that failure to remove its forces from Somalia would have severe consequences.”

“The Kenyan government, however, turned a deaf ear to our repeated warnings and continued to massacre innocent Muslims in Somalia,” it said in another tweet.

The militia said that its “Mujahideen” had entered the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall about noon and that they were “still inside the mall, fighting” Kenyans on “their own turf.” In another tweet, the militia said that “what Kenyans are witnessing at #Westgate is retributive justice for crimes committed by their military.”

Al-Shabab has staged numerous smaller attacks around Kenya since the Nairobi government sent troops to Somalia in October 2011 to fight the militia.

The militia also orchestrated the twin bombings in Kampala, Uganda, during the World Cup in July 2010, killing more than 70 people. That attack, the militia said, was in retaliation for Ugandan soldiers taking part in an African force sent to protect Somalia’s government.

The scene at the mall Saturday afternoon was chaotic.

“We have taken so many to the hospital,” said Zulekha Khalid, a Kenyan Red Cross worker taking cover behind a police truck as a barrage of bullets was fired from the direction of the mall. The Red Cross estimated that, in addition to the 30 dead, more than 50 people were injured in the attack. Khalid said the casualty figures were expected to rise.

Police had earlier characterized the assault, one of the most brazen here in recent memory, as a robbery gone wrong. But senior Kenyan officials, including officials at the East African nation’s Interior Ministry, later said it was likely a terrorist attack. Some witnesses and security officials said the assailants numbered no more than five, while others said there were as many 10 or 15. Some witnesses said one was a woman.

One injured victim said the attackers had ordered Muslims to leave the premises, in an apparent attempt to target non-Muslims. The victim, an American, told this to a friend, who recounted it to a Washington Post reporter. Other witnesses gave similar accounts to other news organizations.

By early evening, the attackers were holed up on an upper floor of the mall, holding hostages, according to police officials and security officers at the scene. Kenyan military and police units had entered the building and were seeking to capture or kill the gang. Scores of people remained inside, huddling in stores, banks, even closets, praying the attackers would not find them. Outside, their relatives frantically sent them text messages, comforting them as best as they could.

Earlier, many of those who had filtered out with the help of security personnel were in tears, their faces revealing the anguish of their ordeal. Some collapsed on the asphalt, while others had to be carried out on stretchers, covered in blood from bullet wounds. Ambulances waited outside to ferry the wounded to hospitals around Nairobi.

Outside the mall entrance, two corpses lay on the ground, next to cars peppered with bullet holes. More bodies lay inside the mall, according to wire service photos.

Matthew Den Dulk said his wife was hiding in one of the banks in the mall.

“My wife told me there’s a large group of people armed to the teeth with grenades and AK-47s,” Den Dulk said.

Annamaria Watrin, an American aid worker from Minnesota, said a friend and his teenage daughter had gone to the mall for a birthday party. “As they went to park their car, she saw five gunmen pop out. They shot her dad. He died,” Watrin said. The girl was injured.

At social gatherings, many middle-class Kenyans and expatriates have long voiced concern about a possible attack on Westgate and other upscale shopping centers and restaurants in Nairobi. Guards at the malls check vehicles for explosives and use hand-held metal scans on shoppers, but they are mostly unarmed, incapable of responding to a heavily armed attack.

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