NAIROBI, Sep 22 – Kenyan troops were locked in a fierce firefight with Somali militants inside an upmarket Nairobi shopping mall on Sunday, in a final push to end a siege that has left 43 dead and 200 wounded with an unknown number of hostages still being held.
Heavy gunfire could be heard as Kenyan security officials said they were attempting to kill or capture the remaining attackers and end to the 22-hour-long bloodbath at the Westgate mall.
Somalia’s Al Qaeda-inspired Shabaab rebels said the carnage at the part Israeli-owned complex mall was in retaliation for Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia, where African Union troops are battling the Islamists.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a televised address to the nation late on Saturday that he had “personally lost family members in the Westgate attack”.
“Let me make it clear. We shall hunt down the perpetrators wherever they run to. We shall get them. We shall punish them for this heinous crime,” he vowed.
The Westgate mall is popular with wealthy Kenyans and expatriates, and was packed with around 1,000 shoppers when the gunmen marched in at midday on Saturday, tossed grenades and sprayed automatic gunfire on terrified people.
Security agencies have long feared that the shopping centre could be targeted by Al Qaeda-linked groups.
The attack was the worst in Nairobi since an Al-Qaeda bombing at the US embassy killed more than 200 in 1998.
After a day and night of sometimes ferocious gun battles, security sources said police and soldiers had finally “pinned down” the gunmen. The Kenyan Red Cross appealed for blood donations and authorities urged residents to steer clear of the area.
“We are still battling with the attackers and our forces have managed to maroon the attackers on one of the floors,” said Kenyan military spokesman Colonel Cyrus Oguna.
“We still do not know the number of hostages nor the attackers but we hope to bring this to end today,” he added.
An AFP correspondent at the scene said a final assault appeared to be in motion, and saw two wounded Kenyan soldiers evacuated from the complex and taken away by ambulance. A woman who had spent a cold night hiding under a parked car was also rescued.
One teenage survivor recounted to AFP how he played dead to avoid being killed.
“I heard screams and gunshots all over the place. 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,” 18-year-old Umar Ahmed told AFP.
In the hours after the attack began, shocked people of all ages and races could be seen running away from the mall, some clutching babies, while others crawled along walls to avoid stray bullets.
“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.”