A mass shooting in a shopping mall in the Kenyan capital, which killed at least 22 people on Saturday, might be a "terrorist" attack, Kenya's Ministry of Interior said on Saturday. A number of Israelis that were on the scene were rescued unharmed.
"It is a possibility that it is an attack by terrorists, so we are treating the matter very seriously," Mutea Iringo, the principal secretary in the Ministry of Interior told Reuters.
Asked if foreign security services were involved in the operation to flush out the attackers, he said, "At this stage it has not become necessary yet."
Gunmen stormed the shopping mall in the Kenyan capital on killing at least 22 people, according to the Kenyan Red Cross, and sending scores fleeing into shops, a cinema and onto the streets seeking safety.
Officials in the Israeli foreign ministry said that three Israeli citizens that were in the mall at the time of the attack were able to escape unharmed and were collected by the Deputy Israeli Ambassador to Kenya Yaki Lopez and the embassy security officer that were present on the scene.
Two Israeli men that managed to escape on their own and an Israeli woman that hid in one of the businesses and was rescued by the local security forces. A senior official at the foreign ministry said that the families of the Israelis that escaped the incident were informed. The ministry said that beyond these persons it is believed that no other Israelis were present.
The mall is partly under Israeli ownership, and a coffee shop located in the mall, Artcaffe, is an Israel-owned cafe.
The Somali militant group al Shabaab had threatened to strike the Westgate mall, popular with the city's expatriate community; but there was no immediate claim of responsibility from any group. Al Shabaab said it had no comment on the attack.
Police helicopters circled overhead as armed police shouted "get out, get out", and scores of shoppers fled the building. Smoke poured out of one entrance and witnesses said they heard grenade blasts.
Others said they saw about five armed assailants storm the Westgate shopping mall and that the incident appeared to be an attack rather than an armed robbery.
Sporadic gun shots could be heard two hours after the shooting started as police combed the building, hunting down the attackers shop by shop. Some local television stations reported hostages had been taken, but there was no official confirmation.
"They don't seem like thugs, this is not a robbery incident," said Yukeh Mannasseh who was on the mall's top floor when the shooting started. "It seems like an attack. The guards who saw them said they were shooting indiscriminately."
One eyewitness who identified himself as Taha said he heard the screech of brakes followed moments later by an explosion and then sustained gun fire from the ground floor.
Another survivor said he was shot by a man who looked Somali.
Some shoppers ran up stairs and escalators and hid around the mall's cinema complex. Police found another terrified group hiding in a toilet on the first floor.
At least two dozen wounded were wheeled out on stretchers and shopping trolleys. Many of the victims had multiple light wounds, apparently from flying debris. Other walked out, some with bloodied clothing wrapped around wounds.
The Kenyan Red Cross said 22 had been killed and more casualties were still inside the complex. "The casualties are many, and that's only what we have on the outside," Kenya Red Cross Society Secretary General Abbas Guled said. "Inside there are even more casualties and shooting is still going on."
Kenya blames Al-Shabaab and its sympathizers for a string of shootings, bombings and grenade attacks against churches and the security forces since Kenyan forces moved into Somalia to help battle the Al-Qaida-linked militants two years ago.
Al-Shabaab have previously threatened to launch strikes on Nairobi's tower blocks and soft targets including nightclubs and hotels known to be popular with Westerners in the capital. But they have so far failed to carry out such an attack.
"I personally touched the eyes of four people and they were dead. One of them was a child," said one former British soldier at the scene.
Asked if the attack was a robbery, one paramilitary officer said: "No, terrorist". There has, though, been no official statement from the police regarding the attackers' motive.
Police cordoned off the roads surrounding the mall in central Nairobi's Westlands neighborhood.
Satpal Singh, who was in another cafe on the mall's top floor said he ran downstairs when he heard the gunfire and was shot at near the mall's main exit.
"A Somali guy shot at me. The guy who shot me was carrying a rifle, an AK-47," 36-year-old Singh said.
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