(CHANGING DEATH TOLL IN LEAD)
By BosNewsLife Africa Service
NAIROBI, KENYA (BosNewsLife)-- There was concern Sunday, September 22, about the plight of Christians and other non-Muslims trapped in a popular high-end shopping mall in the Kenyan capital, after fighters linked to terror group al-Qaida stormed the complex in an attack that left at least 69 people dead and 175 injured.
Reporters and witnesses said the attackers of Al-Shabab, a Somali militia linked to al-Qaida, had ordered Muslims to leave the premises of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, in an apparent attempt to target non-Muslims.
It was not immediately clear how many Muslims remained among those held by gunmen, who were throwing grenades and firing weapons. Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the assault in several short online messages known as 'tweets' using its official Twitter website name @HSM_Press.
The group said it was retaliating for Kenya, a key U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism, sending troops to fight in neighboring Somalia, where it remains a key military threat.
“For long we have waged war against the Kenyans in our land, now it’s time to shift the battleground and take the war to their land,” the militia said in one tweet.
Hours after the attack began late Saturday morning local time, the attackers were reportedly on an upper floor of the 5-story mall, holding hostages early Sunday, September 22.
Some witnesses and security officials said the assailants, dressed in dark clothes, numbered no more than five, while others claimed as many as 10 or 15. Witnesses said one was a woman who wore a hijab, attire favored by conservative Muslim women.
"Scores of people remained inside, huddling in stores, banks, even closets. Outside, their relatives frantically sent them text messages, comforting them as best as they could," explained Sudarsan Raghavan, a reporter of The Washington Post newspaper.
Witnesses said as many as 1,000 people had filtered out with the help of security personnel, their faces revealing the anguish of their ordeal. Some collapsed on the asphalt, while others had to be carried out, covered in blood from bullet wounds. Ambulances waited outside to ferry the wounded to hospitals.
Outside the mall entrance, two bodies lay on the ground, next to cars peppered with bullet holes, witnesses said.
Though Muslims have also been among the many victims, the attack has added to concerns among minority Christians in Africa that they will be increasingly singled out for attacks by Islamic militants, including Al-Shabab.
In one of the bloodiest anti-Christian attacks, masked gunmen sprayed bullets and hurled grenades at two churches in the northern Kenyan town of Garissa on July 1 last year, killing at least 15 people and injuring several.
There have also been warning that shopping malls frequented by middle-class Kenyans, including Westgate Mall, may be among the targets.
In a televised address, President Uhuru Kenyatta pledged to find those responsible for the bloodshed. “We have overcome terrorist attacks before. We will defeat them again,” Kenyatta said, adding that some of his close relatives were among the dead.
“Our security forces are conducting a multi-agency response to this attack as we speak, and we are in the process of neutralizing the attackers and securing the mall," he said. “It is a very delicate operation as our top priority remains to safeguard the lives of innocent people held up in this unfortunate incident.”
Hezron Karanja, a father of two who was trapped inside the mall for more than three hours, said he heard the attackers speaking in a language he did not understand.
“We have gone to do our banking inside Nakumatt hall, and then all of a sudden we heard gunshots, and all of us had to lie down," he said in comments aired by the Voice of America (VOA) network. "That was around between 12:30 and up to now. We have been holed [up] inside there and hearing certain language that we couldn’t understand, [from] people who were giving commands and orders.”
Swahili and English are Kenya's official languages, but many people also speak other indigenous languages and dialects.
Armed robberies are common in the capital, but the city has also faced a series of grenade attacks since its troops crossed into Somalia to fight the militant group al-Shabab in 2011.
Canada and France each say two of their own citizens were killed in the attack, and U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said there are reports of Americans injured in the attack, but no further details were immediately available.
US CONDEMNS ATTACK
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the attack and said the United States has offered Kenya's government its full support to help bring the perpetrators of the attack to justice.
In Washington, he said in a statement that the attack was “a heartbreaking reminder that there exists unspeakable evil in our world which can destroy life in a senseless instant.” He said the wife of a U.S. Agency for International Development worker was among those killed.
Al-Shabab defended the attacks in in tweets saying that “what Kenyans are witnessing at Westgate is retributive justice for crimes committed by their military.” The militia said it was in contact with the assailants inside the mall and ruled out negotiations for the release of the hostages.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed alarm about the attack and spoke to the Kenyan president about it. The assault was the deadliest terrorist attack in this East Africa nation since al-Qaida operatives staged twin bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1998, killing more than 200 people in Kenya alone.
It came as another major setback for Kenya, which was long seen as a source of stability in East Africa and relies heavily on tourism and Western investments.
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