NAIROBI – His face wet with rain and tears, Nairobi banker Ali Valli plunged through the police barricades outside the Westgate mall, rushing desperately down the road toward the building where his wife and son were hostages of Islamist militants.
“Let me in, let me in, let me in,” he pleaded with the police. “I want to go in, I want to die.” But they grabbed him and bundled him away, trying to reassure him that his wife and two-year-old son could still be alive. “Keep heart,” they told him.
On the second night of the shopping-mall siege by the extremist group al-Shabaab that has already killed at least 68 people and injured 175, there were explosions and gunshots in the darkness, but still no solace for frightened relatives of the remaining hostages.
The death toll is expected to keep rising.
Military vehicles carrying armed soldiers were seen trundling through the streets around the Westgate mall throughout the day on Sunday, and helicopters flew overhead.
Kenya was also reportedly receiving help from counter-terrorism advisers from Israel, the United States and Britain.
Most of the victims at the mall were Kenyans, but among the dead were two Canadians and a number of other nationalities, including citizens of France, Britain, India, China and South Africa, and renowned Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor. Two other Canadians and a permanent resident of Canada were injured.
Squads of gunmen stormed the upmarket Westgate mall at lunchtime on Saturday, terrorizing shoppers by spraying automatic fire and throwing grenades. Survivors said the gunmen asked some shoppers if they were Muslim – if they could prove it, they were let free; if not, they were shot. Kenyan police and military went from store to store, freeing people hiding from the attackers and getting help for the injured.
In all, said Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, more than 1,000 people were rescued.
Somalia’s most powerful militant group, al-Shabaab, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was revenge for Kenya’s invasion of southern Somalia in 2011. Some of the attackers reportedly shouted that Kenya had killed Somalis and now it was time for payback.
Analysts said the attack was a sign of weakness by al-Shabaab, which has been pushed out of the major Somali cities of Mogadishu and Kismayo in the past two years. But it was also represented a shift in strategy, with al-Shabaab now moving towards guerrilla and terrorist tactics after losing its direct clashes with a coalition of African troops in Mogadishu.
Mr. Kenyatta said in an address to Kenya that his nephew and his fiancée were among the dead. “These are young, lovely people I personally knew and loved,” Mr. Kenyatta said. “I assure Kenyans that we have as good a chance to successfully neutralize the terrorists as we can hope for,” he said.
But a military spokesman for al-Shabaab said the group had nothing to fear. “Where will Uhuru Kenyatta get the power with which he threatened us?” said Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab.
As the standoff entered its third day Monday, Kenya’s military announced it had gained control of most of the luxury mall and rescued most of the hostages, but it also confirmed that some people – as many as 10, according to one army spokesman – were still in the hands of the estimated 10 to 15 heavily armed attackers.
Mr. Valli said he was working at his office while his wife and son had gone to the mall for lunch on Saturday at 11 a.m., shortly before the assault began. The attackers threw grenades, opened fire on dozens of shoppers and took hostages at a large supermarket in the mall. The last that he heard from his wife was a text message at 6 p.m. on Saturday. “We are safe,” it said. Since then, he has heard nothing.
There had been warnings for more than a year that the Somali militant group was planning an attack on a high-profile target in Nairobi, possibly a luxury hotel. The Westgate mall, which attracts about 10,000 shoppers on weekends, had posted security guards at its entrances, but the attackers were quick to shoot the guards or sweep past them.
Don Juma, a 27-year-old Kenyan taxi driver who was inside the mall when the attack began, said the gunmen were highly organized and seemed to be running deliberately toward the most crowded parts of the shopping mall. They wore black masks and military-style uniforms and began shooting at people in the mall immediately, he said.
He saw more than 10 attackers jumping out of three cars at the entrance, carrying automatic rifles and grenades, with ammunition belts around their waists.
“They were well-trained – they knew what they were doing. They just started shooting, without saying anything. They were shooting anyone. It was terrible, very terrible. I’ve never gone through such a thing in my life. It was like a movie.”
He saw many people shot, including a man who was shot in the neck. “He died on the spot,” Mr. Juma said. Mr. Juma hid on the floor behind a pillar, and then managed to escape from the mall. “I was lucky.”