, NAIROBI, Sep 21 – Masked gunmen stormed a teeming upmarket mall in Nairobi on Saturday, sprayed gunfire and killing around 20 people before holing themselves up in the complex with hostages.
Police were going shop-to-shop to evacuate terrified people from the Westgate shopping mall, which is popular with wealthy Kenyans and expatriates and generally packed on weekends.
Witnesses said the gunmen spoke Arabic or Somali and executed shoppers, in what appeared to be the worst attack in Nairobi since an Al-Qaeda bombing at the US embassy killed more than 200 in 1998.
The Red Cross said that some 20 people had been killed and another 50 wounded in the attack.
As security forces were trying to secure a multi-screen cinema complex on the mall’s top floor, a police source said it had been confirmed that the attackers were holding at least seven hostages.
An AFP reporter said she saw at least 20 people rescued from a toy shop. Dozens of wounded, some of them bleeding children, were stretchered away from the mall.
A shop manager who managed to escape said at one point “it seemed that the shooters had taken control of all the mall”.
“They spoke something that seemed like Arabic or Somali,” said a man who escaped the mall and gave his name only as Jay. “I saw people being executed after being asked to say something.”
Shocked people could be seen running away from the Westgate centre clutching children while others crawled along walls to avoid stray bullets.
‘I saw people being executed’
The mall – which has several Israeli-owned businesses, is a hub for Nairobi-based Westerners and one of the foremost symbols of Kenya’s affluent classes – has long been considered a potential terror target.
Kenneth Kerich, who was shopping when the attack happened, described scenes of panic.
“I suddenly heard gunshots and saw everyone running around so we lay down. I saw two people who were lying down and bleeding, I think they were hit by bullets,” he said.
“Initially we thought it is police fighting thugs. But we could not leave until when officers walked in, shot in the air and told us to get out.”
An eyewitness who survived the assault by gunmen said he saw the body of a child being wheeled out of the mall.
“The gunmen tried to fire at my head but missed. At least 50 people were shot. There are definitely many casualties,” mall employee Sudjar Singh told AFP.