September 23, 2013 – Assault on Mall Stuns Kenya: Death Toll Rises to at Least 68, With Dozens Believed Trapped. Kenyan police late Sunday struck to end a two-day terrorist attack at an upscale mall after the death toll rose to 68, with some 40 people believed trapped inside the complex while armed militants remained at large. Pictured above, Kenyan soldiers on Sunday morning outside the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, under attack by armed militants.
But the terrorist siege of an upscale Nairobi shopping mall pushed into a third day Monday morning, with a round of shooting sounding after dawn as helicopters circled overhead.
“I heard about five shots going together,” said Samuel Gitau, a driver who had dropped a client off at an office nearby. “It’s been on and off like that for a while.”
Kenyan security forces had said late Sunday that they were making a final push against the 10-15 attackers inside and that they expected the standoff to end that night. Instead the country continued to wait anxiously for the end to a siege that began Saturday, targeting a lunchtime crowd filled with families—both Kenyan and foreign.
It was unclear how many people were trapped inside and whether they were being held hostage or were in hiding. Red Cross estimates put the number still missing at about 40.
Attackers stormed at least three entrances to the mall simultaneously when the attack began Saturday. Gunfire ripped through open-air cafes at the main entrance, while a grenade exploded in the rooftop parking lot and another group of shooters opened fire in the basement garage.
A French man eating at a tapas bar said a gunman yelled “Allahu akbar!”—Arabic for “God is Great!” — as he opened fire on the diners.
“Their mission was to kill, not to steal,” said Edwin Omoding, a 26-year-old stocker for the Nakumatt supermarket inside the mall. He said he saw about 20 attackers, including three women.
Mr. Omoding said the attackers identified themselves as members of al-Shabaab, a Somali militant group that has long threatened a major attack against Kenya as retribution for its decision to send troops to help the Somali government fight the insurgents. Twitter messages purportedly from the group claimed responsibility for the attack and taunted the Kenyan government throughout the siege.
“They were questioning people, and they said, ‘If you are Muslim you are on the safer side, but if you are Hindu or Christian you will be killed,’ ” Mr. Omoding said.
He said he and four others hid next to a large walk-in refrigerator, while other people hid in the refrigerator itself. At one point the attackers shot everyone inside the refrigerator, without noticing his group. Mr. Omoding said a bullet grazed his chest but he kept quiet and remained unseen, and was rescued at 9 p.m. Saturday.
Peter Outa, a spokesman for the Red Cross, said late Sunday that at least 68 people had been confirmed killed.
Among them were three Britons, two Canadians including a diplomat, two French women and a prominent Ghanaian poet, their governments said. The local press reported that a Kenyan radio presenter was killed on the roof, and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said his nephew and the nephew’s fiancée died in the attack.
When the shooting started, some in the mall ran in one direction only to find themselves facing another flank of shooters. “We tried to escape through the main gate, but the attackers were also coming through that gate. So we turned and tried to go back to the basement,” said Peter Ouma, a 25-year-old construction worker.
Mr. Ouma, who was in the basement when attackers entered, said they were dressed in black with their faces masked “like ninjas.” He said there was one woman in that group.
“They were at all the exits; even if you wanted to escape you couldn’t,” Mr. Ouma said. He first hid with about 10 others under a stairwell, then managed to slide underneath a car in the parking garage and stayed there until he was rescued by soldiers Sunday morning.
The deadliest attack to hit Kenya since the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing started around 12:30 p.m. local time Saturday.
Most of Westgate’s shops are on three main levels, with a few more in the basement and a movie theater that extends up onto a higher level. When news of an attack there first filtered out to the city through phone calls and text messages, initial assumptions were that it was a robbery, a common occurrence in a crime-ridden city where going into shopping centers requires handbag searches and a once-over with a metal detector.
But inside the mall, the scene was bloody. A waitress at the popular ArtCaffe restaurant said men entered the dining area and just started shooting the patrons.
Over the course of the day, Kenyan police and soldiers slowly pushed in, ushering out people who were hiding in restrooms, banks’ safe rooms or the depths of restaurant kitchens.
Security forces sought to surround the attackers without knowing how many there were, where they were holed up or whether they had hostages.
As of Sunday night, many people still hadn’t made it out. The Kenyan Red Cross said 49 people had been reported missing by family or friends and were believed still inside. The Red Cross later said that nine bodies had been found.
President Kenyatta called the assault an “evil and cowardly act of terrorism” and vowed to continue to fight against the Somali militants. “I want to be very clear and categorical: We shall not relent on the war on terror. We will continue that fight, and we urge all people of goodwill throughout the world to join us and to ensure that we uproot this evil,” he said.
More than 175 were injured in the attack, according to Joseph Ole Lenku, Kenya’s secretary for the interior. He said more than 1,000 people were safely evacuated.
Kenyan officials said there were still 10 or 15 attackers in the building Sunday evening, cornered in one location. Officials said at least one attacker died of his wounds after having been arrested.
As the drama continued into the night, the Kenyan government started trying to soften the latest painful blow to East Africa’s biggest economy. Nairobi is a hub for multinationals and nonprofit organizations doing business in Africa. Westgate mall is a crossroads of expatriate life in the city. It is also a stop for tourists en route to Kenya’s safari parks and beaches.
Kenya already has weathered several bouts of domestic turmoil this year. National elections in March passed without any of the ethnic violence that killed more than 1,000 people after the last contest in 2007. But the victor, Mr. Kenyatta, is set to go on trial at the International Criminal Court in November in a case involving alleged crimes against humanity related to ethnic violence during the 2007 election. He has said he is innocent.
On top of that, much of Nairobi’s international airport was destroyed in a fire last month. Its cause remains unknown as an investigation continues.
So far, Kenya’s economy has soldiered ahead. The International Monetary Fund forecast in April that gross domestic product would expand 5.8% this year, up from 4.7% in 2012.
Kenya’s finance ministry said this month that the country hopes to issue bonds worth at least $1.5 billion to foreign investors in November to fund ambitious infrastructure programs.
But this weekend’s strike at the heart of Kenya’s cosmopolitan comforts is drawing a new cloud of uncertainty over a linchpin African economy.
“The question is where does this leave the narrative about a Kenyan economy ready to take off,” said Razia Khan, head of Africa research at London’s Standard Chartered Bank. “You have this awful attack, destructive as possible in its aim—it’s going to be a challenging time to be sure.” (Credits – the WSJ, Associated Press and EPA).
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