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The death toll in a suspected terrorist attack on a mall in Nairobi has risen to 68, with 175 injured, government officials in Kenya said Sunday, adding that about 1,000 people escaped.
At press time, the Kenyan government claimed most of the hostages, numbering as many as 30 according to wire reports, had been rescued in a military assault that occurred shortly before sundown local time. The status was unknown regarding the 10 to 15 suspected al-Shabab militants who stormed into the upscale Westgate shopping complex on Saturday.
Among those killed were Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta’s nephew and his fiancée, Kenyatta said in an emotional speech to the nation following the attack where he promised that he would punish those responsible. “Make no mistake,” he said. “We shall hunt down the perpetrators wherever they run to. We shall get them and we shall punish them for this heinous crime.”
The militants told a British broadcaster that the attack was retribution for Kenyan military operations in Somalia.
American and British government officials have urged expatriates to avoid public spaces in the Kenyan capital.
Masked gunmen are said to have entered the mall armed with automatic weapons and grenades, and taken the hostages after trading gunfire with police officials.
The mall is one of Nairobi’s highest-end complexes, popular with wealthy Kenyans and foreign visitors. It is comprised largely of local brands as well as a Rado watch store, a division of Swatch Group, and a Woolworths department store.
Other brands include Melablooms, Basic Intimates, Eugen Klein, Toread, Factory 55, Identity, Ivory, Fragrance Lounge and Lintons Beauty World, which stocks prestige beauty brands.
Belgian expat Elodie Sampere, who works with a wildlife conservancy organization, said: “I had some friends trapped in there, some friends that got shot and I know of some people who died.
“Westgate is one of the biggest malls in Nairobi and we all go there at least once a week…My husband and niece and nephew were there and left five minutes before the shooting began. We are counting our blessings. It’s a very upscale mall, frequented by rich Kenyans, expats and tourists. Supposedly they were specifically looking for Americans and Brits and let anyone go who could recite the Koran.”
Richard Goes, group sales manager for Kazuri Beads, which manufactures ceramic beads and fashions them into accessories, jewelry and home decor pieces, has a shop in Westgate. He said because the gunmen were apparently on the upper floors and his shop was on the ground floor, he was able to get his staff out of the store with the assistance of the police, mall security and the Kenya Defence Force on Saturday.
The Westgate Mall remained closed Sunday. There is tightened security in other malls and a curfew of sorts has been imposed: Kenya officials were asking people to clear out of all malls by 5 p.m.
The shooting was the deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya since al-Qaeda operatives bombed the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1998, killing more than 200.