Islamist gunmen linked to Al Qaeda were holding dozens of hostages Sunday morning inside an upscale Kenyan mall, 24 hours after they stormed the building with heavy weapons and grenades.
An unknown number of people remained trapped inside the Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, as specialist troops with backup from the FBI combed the building trying to corner the attackers.
Kenya’s government said that 59 people, including several children, had died and 175 had been wounded, according to the latest information available early Sunday. Those numbers are expected to rise.
The attack, apparently targeting non-Muslims and Westerners who frequent the mall, shocked many in Kenya for its ferocity, but there had been warnings that it could happen.
Somalia’s Al Shabab Islamists said their forces were responsible and the assault was in revenge for Kenya’s Army offensive against them in Somalia, where they have been pushed out of most major towns in the past two years.
There had been repeated “threat alerts” of potential attacks targeting the shopping center, but Al Shabab’s efforts in Kenya so far were limited to single grenades lobbed at bus-stop queues or into illegal pubs.
By contrast, Saturday’s attack was the worst terror strike on the country since the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi, in which 212 people died.
Several US citizens were injured or caught up in the assault on the mall, popular with expatriates and middle-class Kenyans, where outlets include jewelry shops, cafes, a sushi bar, and a multiscreen cinema.
More than 1,000 people had been rescued by Sunday, according to Joseph Ole Lenku, Kenya’s interior secretary.
But as the siege entered its second day, the Kenya Red Cross was preparing for the worst with a makeshift triage center set up in a Hindu temple complex within sight of the mall.
“If they were shot or injured at the start of this thing, unless they self-administered professionally, there will be very serious loss of blood by now,” said Venant Ndighila, head of the Red Cross’s emergency response team.
Al Shabab said via its Twitter account that its gunmen, believed to number between 10 and 15, were not defeated, and it ruled out negotiation.
“The Mujahideen are still firmly in control of the situation inside #Westgate Mall,” their spokesman tweeted. “Negotiation is out of the question.”
Reports from some of the people who managed to escape in the initial outbreak of gunfire reported a “scene of horror” inside the four-storey building, which was hosting a cooking competition for children on its roof when the attack began.
“I hid under a car with my daughters, and I saw the men line up maybe 40 people and ask them who was Muslim, and if they were, to prove it by saying the name of the prophet’s mother. Those who got it wrong were shot,” said Charles Karani, an IT engineer.
“There was blood everywhere. Two ladies under the car with me had gunshot wounds on their legs.
“Another Indian gentlemen was hit on the face by a bullet but he seemed not to be gravely hurt. Other people for sure are dead. I saw four people lying not moving.
“A grenade was thrown and it rolled near us. My daughter said: 'Papa, there’s a grenade’ — but thank God it didn’t go off and I kicked it away.”
A New York City teacher who moved to Kenya only a month ago and who escaped unharmed after two hours trapped in the building said it was “so, so horrible.”
“I watched 9/11 from my apartment window, I’ve been in Cairo, and this is up there with that,” she said, giving her name only as Elizabeth.
“There was so much shooting. I hid under a bed in a department store with a Kenyan lady. We both escaped when the police said it was clear to go.”
Kenyan citizens rallied to give blood to help the injured at a series of “donor drives” at hospitals around Nairobi. Church services Sunday morning were dominated by prayers for the hostages, and for the dead and injured.