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|December 21, 2014|
Upscale mall becomes a war zone in Kenya terror attack
NAIROBI, Kenya--An upscale mall popular with the Kenyan elite and the foreign diplomats and businesspeople who call Nairobi home turned into a war zone on Saturday, as gunmen opened fire on shoppers in an apparent terrorist attack, killing at least 30 people and wounding dozens more.
At nightfall, the mall remained sealed off to the public as police officers and soldiers searched floor by floor for the gunmen, who were still believed to be inside with hostages.
Witnesses described hearing explosions and gunfire as they fled, leaving behind blood, broken glass and carnage in what was apparently one of the worst terrorist attacks in the country’s history.
Joseph Momanyi, 26, an employee at the Nakumatt grocery store there, said that as he was running away he heard the attackers shouting that “Muslims should leave” the complex.
The authorities said it was too early to identify the culprits, but suspicion immediately focused on the Shabab, the ferocious Somali militant group that has been linked to past attacks in Kenya, including a grenade and gunfire attack on two churches last year that killed 15 people.
Kenya is widely considered a beacon of stability in an often unstable region. The United Nations has a hub here, as do many nonprofit organizations and corporations. The country’s economy is heavily dependent on tourist revenue, with peaceful safaris and gentle holidays on the coast attracting people from all over the world.
Even before the rise of the Shabab, Kenya was a target for terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda, like the 1998 bombing of the American Embassy in Nairobi and coordinated attacks on an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa and an Israeli airliner in 2002. But Kenya has found itself ever more enmeshed in the bloody volatility of Somalia since October 2011, when Kenyan military forces invaded Somalia to help fight the Shabab.
Gen. Abbas Guled, secretary general of the Kenyan Red Cross, said in a phone interview on Saturday that 30 people had been killed and more than 60 wounded. The police had not yet confirmed any fatalities, and there was no claim of responsibility. Local media reported that one wounded suspect had been detained at a hospital on Saturday evening.
Stephen Opiyo, 25, who was working at a supermarket there, said: “We heard gunshots and started running, trying to find an escape route. I saw many people who had suffered gunshot injuries, and some have been taken away to hospital.”
Witnesses described attackers using AK-47 rifles and throwing grenades. Photographs from the scene showed a woman’s bloody body being lifted out of a car, the glass of the window shattered.
Vivian Atieno, 26, who works on the first floor of the mall, described “intense shooting,” starting around 11 a.m., before she escaped through a fire exit.
Haron Mwachia, 20, a cleaner at the mall, said he escaped by climbing over a wall. “I heard several gunshots and managed to run away,” he said.
“It was a horrible experience to me, and I was extremely afraid,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Military helicopters hovered overhead as the police kept bystanders away from the scene. The police said they had surrounded the mall, and they were seen clearing the shops one by one.
“Our officers are on the ground carrying out an evacuation of those inside as they search for the attackers, who are said to be inside,” Inspector General David Kimaiyo of the Kenyan police told Agence France-Presse.
Agence France-Presse reported that the gunmen had taken at least seven hostages, citing police officers and security guards at the scene. The Red Cross reported around 5 p.m. on its Twitter account that the hostages were being released.
Benson Kibue, the Nairobi police chief, told The Associated Press that it was a terrorist attack and that there were probably no more than 10 gunmen involved. Earlier, Mr. Kibue said the attack had been part of an attempted robbery.
Saturday’s attack ruptured the bubble of safety that surrounds the affluent districts of the Kenyan capital. The mall, called Westgate, is in many ways like an American shopping mall, with a Converse store, a tapas restaurant and a corner where children can play while their parents shop and eat.
On weekends, Westgate is bustling with shoppers, including well-to-do Kenyans and members of the city’s large contingent of expatriates. Brightly lighted, with peach-colored pillars and a marble stairway, the Westgate mall has more than 80 stores covering 350,000 square feet.
Many shopping malls in Nairobi have security guards outside, checking vehicles, searching bags and using metal-detecting wands on visitors before they enter. But the guards, lightly armed, if at all, would be no match for assailants armed with automatic rifles.
Ilana Stein, a spokeswoman for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the attack took place near but not inside the ArtCaffe, an Israeli-owned coffee shop and bakery popular with foreigners that is one of 80 businesses in the mall. Ms. Stein said that one Israeli was lightly injured and three others escaped unharmed, and that the Kenyan interior minister said Israelis were not being targeted."This time, the story is not about Israel,” Ms. Stein said. “The minister is saying that this is an internal Kenyan issue. His security forces tell him that this terror organization was not targeting Israelis.”
For years, there have been growing concerns that the Shabab would try to pull off a significant attack here in reprisal for Kenya’s deployment of troops in Somalia.
The group has executed revenge attacks on other African countries that have sent troops to Somalia, including Uganda. In July 2010, the Shabab killed more than 70 people who had gathered at a restaurant and a rugby field in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, to watch the final match of the World Cup. (Source: The New York Times)
Story Date: September 22, 2013