A senior figure in the Somali militant group al-Shabab has told the BBC it carried out a deadly attack on a shopping centre in neighbouring Kenya.
Al-Shabab, which has links to al-Qaeda, said the attack was in response to Kenya’s presence in Somalia, where its troops have been fighting the militants since 2011.
A senior Kenyan security official has put the death toll at 11. But the Red Cross says at least 30 people were killed and dozens injured. Al-Shabab’s claim that it carried out Saturday’s deadly attack will have come as no surprise to those in the region.
Ever since Kenyan forces went into Somalia in 2011 to push the militant al-Qaeda-linked group back from their common border, al-Shabab has threatened to step up its attacks inside Kenya. Since then, it has carried out sporadic gun, bomb and grenade attacks on churches, security forces and other targets, but nothing on this scale.
The Westgate attack bears similarities to the Mumbai siege of 2008 where heavily armed jihadist gunmen attacked “soft” (undefended) city targets, killing as many civilians as possible, taking hostages where they could, and taking maximum advantage of the surrounding publicity.
That prompted a complete rethink in counter-terrorism in Britain, with the realisation that the UK was unprepared at the time for such a determined attack. On its Twitter feed, al-Shabab, which has links to al-Qaeda, said it was behind what it called the “Westgate spectacle”.
The attackers entered the Westgate centre at about 12:00 local time (09:00 GMT), throwing grenades and firing automatic weapons. Dozens of shoppers fled; many were trapped inside. Officers have been going shop to shop to secure the area.
Al-Shabab also said on Twitter that its fighters were still battling Kenyan security forces inside the Westgate centre, some seven hours after the assault began. A security source told the AFP news agency police and soldiers had finally “pinned down” the gunmen in one corner of the shopping centre after several hours of fighting.
One gunman was arrested and died of his wounds, Kenyan officials told the BBC. Four other gunmen were arrested. Al-Shabab has claimed on its Twitter account that the Kenyan government wants to negotiate an end to the Westgate attack, but officials have told the BBC they intend to hunt the gunmen down.
Some witnesses said Muslims were told to leave and that non-Muslims would be targeted. “They came and said: ‘If you are Muslim, stand up. We’ve come to rescue you,” said Elijah Lamau. He said the Muslims left with their hands up, and then the gunmen shot two people. The Economist correspondent in Nairobi, Daniel Howden told the BBC he spoke to one man with a Christian first name but a Muslim-sounding surname who managed to escape the attackers by putting his thumb over his first name on his ID.
However, the man told Howden that an Indian man standing next to him who was asked for the name of the Prophet Muhammad’s mother was shot dead when he was unable to answer. The US state department says it has reports that American citizens were injured in what it called “a senseless act of violence”. The BBC’s David Okwembah, in Nairobi, says this is one of the worst incidents in Kenya since the attack on the US embassy in August 1998.