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Nairobi - Kenyan troops were locked in a fierce firefight with Somali militants inside an upmarket Nairobi shopping mall 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 the nearly 24-hour-long bloodbath at the Westgate mall.
Somalia's al-Qaeda inspired Al-shabaab rebels said the carnage at the part Israeli-owned complex 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 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 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 an 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 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.”
Kenyan police, troops and special forces then moved in and went shop-to-shop inside the shopping centre. Foreign security officials - from Israel, the United States and Britain - were also seen at the complex.
An AFPTV reporter said she saw at least 20 people rescued from a toy shop, some of them children taken away on stretchers.
Kenneth Kerich, who was shopping when the attack happened, described scenes of utter panic.
“I suddenly heard gunshots and saw everyone running around so we lied down. I saw two people who were lying down and bleeding, I think they were hit by bullets,” he said.
“The gunmen tried to fire at my head but missed. I saw at least 50 people shot,” mall employee Sudjar Singh told AFP.
A spokesman for Al-shabaab said the attack was retaliation for Kenya's nearly two-year-old military presence in war-torn Somalia in support of the internationally-backed Mogadishu government.
“We have warned Kenya of that attack but it ignored (us), still forcefully holding our lands... while killing our innocent civilians,” Al-shabaab's spokesman Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage said in a statement.
“If you want Kenya in peace, it will not happen as long as your boys are in our lands,” the statement said.
The group also issued a string of statements via Twitter, one of them claiming that Muslims in the centre had been “escorted out by the Mujahideen before beginning the attack”.
Police at the scene said a suspect wounded in the firefight had been detained and taken to hospital under armed guard, but later died of his injuries.
The EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said she was “appalled by the brutal attack against innocent citizens” and sent her “sincere condolences to those who have lost family, friends and loved ones”.
Paris confirmed that two French citizens were among those killed in what it condemned as a “cowardly” attack. Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper said two Canadians, one of them a diplomat, were among the dead, while official Chinese news agency Xinhua said one Chinese woman was killed and her child wounded. Two Indians and a South Korean were also among the dead.
The United States said its citizens were reportedly among those injured by the “despicable” act. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said there were “undoubtedly British nationals caught up in this so we should be ready for that”.
The UN Security Council condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the attack. - AFP