NAIROBI – Gunmen stormed a popular, upscale shopping mall in Nairobi on Saturday afternoon, lobbing grenades and firing weapons in an attack that left at least 59 people dead and 175 injured, Kenyan officials said.
Foreigners were among the casualties. French President Francois Hollande said that two Frenchwomen were killed. Two Canadians were killed, including a diplomat, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said.
The Chinese Embassy in Kenya said in a statement Sunday that a 38-year-old Chinese woman had been killed in the attack. Her son was injured and in a stable condition in hospital.
Renowned Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor was also killed in the attack, Ghana’s deputy information minister, Felix Kwakye Ofosu, said on Sunday.
Kenya’s presidential office said that one of the attackers was arrested on Saturday but died overnight from bullet wounds.
Four American citizens were reported injured but not killed in the attack, the State Department said Saturday.
On Sunday, nearly 24 hours after the attack began, 10 to 15 gunmen remained holed up inside the mall with an unknown number of hostages, Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Lenku said Sunday. He said that about 1,000 people have been rescued from the mall so far.
He said that Kenyan forces have seized control of the security cameras inside the mall. Combined military and police forces have surrounded the building.
President Uhuru Kenyatta called the security operation under way “delicate” and said a top priority was to safeguard hostages.
As the attack began shortly after noon Saturday, the al-Qaida-linked gunmen asked the victims they had cornered if they were Muslim: Those who answered yes were free to go, several witnesses said. The non-Muslims were not.
Somalia’s Islamic extremist group al-Shabab claimed responsibility and said the attack was retribution for Kenyan forces’ 2011 push into Somalia.
“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,” the militia said in one tweet. The rebels threatened more attacks.
Al-Shabab said on its Twitter feed that Kenyan security officials were trying to open negotiations. However, “there will be no negotiations whatsoever,” al-Shabab tweeted.
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 includes 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 affluent 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 trickled out of the mall as undercover police moved in. Some of the wounded were trundled out in shopping carts.
“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,” he said, adding that the others were black, suggesting that they could have been Kenyan or another nationality.
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 assertions are often 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 Africans, Asians and Caucasians were among the bodies brought to the mortuary.
In a nationally televised address, Kenyatta vowed to hunt down the perpetrators.
“We have overcome terrorist attacks before. We will defeat them again,” Kenyatta said, adding that some of his close relatives were among the dead.
The U.S. State Department condemned “this senseless act of violence that has resulted in death and injury for many innocent men, women, and children.”
In a separate statement, a White House spokeswoman said some staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya have been “tragically affected” by the attack. No other information was provided.
“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,” Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said in the statement.
The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi said it was in contact with local authorities and offered assistance. Some British security personnel assisted in the response.
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.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 attack was carried out by terrorists, said police chief Benson Kibue. He did not specify a group. He said it was likely that no more than 10 attackers were involved.
Somalia’s president — the leader of a neighboring country familiar with terrorist attacks — said his nation knows “only too well the human costs of violence like this” as he extended prayers to those in Kenya.
“These heartless acts against defenseless civilians, including innocent children, are beyond the pale and cannot be tolerated. We stand shoulder to shoulder with Kenya in its time of grief for these lives lost and the many injured,” President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said.
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.
Dozens of people were wounded. A local hospital was overwhelmed with the number of wounded being brought in hours after the attack and diverted them to a second facility. Officials said Kenyans turned out in droves to donate blood.
Elizabeth Muthona, an employee of Nakumatt, a supermarket inside the mall, watched solemnly Saturday afternoon as more people fled the area, some with bleeding wounds, some carrying their kids in their arms.
She, too, had fled moments earlier.
For several hours, she hid inside a cardboard box, holding her breath as gunmen walked through the store. “I heard the gunshots, and we started running into the store, and we hid in a carton box,” said Muthona, in a quiet and shaking voice. “The gunmen came inside the store, but they didn’t find us.” She paused, then added, “I didn’t expect this to happen. There was so much security inside the mall.”
Frank Musungu, an army warrant officer who was shopping in the mall, said he and another security officer tried to assist someone. But the person was one of the assailants. “He stood up and shot my friend,” recalled Musungu, who took cover behind a wall. “I pulled him towards me and carried him to an ambulance.” Musungu said one attacker wore a white turban, but others wore civilian clothes, “dressed like me and you.”
Eighteen-year-old Umar Ahmed was among many who said he was lucky to be alive.
“I was at Westgate Mall’s carpark on the roof, and all of sudden I heard screams and gunshots all over the place,” Ahmed said.
“I got scared. I tried to run down the stairs and saw someone running towards the top, I ran back and hid behind one of the cars,” he said from his bed at MP Shah Hospital, where he is nursing burns to his hands and chest.
Ahmed said he laid flat on the ground, playing dead. He said he could see one of the gunmen approach and look at him.
“Thankfully he turned back,” he said. “After a while, the police came and we were able to be evacuated.”
The United Nations secretary-general’s office said that Ban Ki-moon has spoken with Kenyatta and expressed his concern. British Prime Minister David Cameron also called Kenyatta and offered assistance. The U.N. Security Council condemned “in the strongest possible terms today’s terrorist attack in Nairobi.”
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-terrorism 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.