By Patrick Garrity and Simon Moya-Smith, NBC News
An injured woman is carried to safety after masked gunmen stormed an upmarket mall and sprayed gunfire on shoppers and staff in Nairobi on Saturday. Simon Maina / AFP – Getty Images
Gunmen stormed a crowded shopping mall frequented by Westerners on Saturday in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi in an apparent terror attack, leaving at least 11 dead. The U.S. State Department said American citizens were reportedly among the injured.
The militant Islamic group al-Shabab, based in neighboring Somalia, claimed responsibility for the attack via Twitter, saying it was in retaliation “for the lives of innocent Muslims” killed by Kenyan forces leading an African Union offensive against al-Shabab.
A witness said that gunmen armed with AK-47s and grenades entered the mall around noon local time and told Muslims to stand up and leave and that non-Muslims would be targeted, according to the AP.
Police helicopters circled above the mall as armed police shouted “get out! get out!” and scores of shoppers fled the building, Reuters reported. Smoke poured out of one entrance of the high and witnesses said they heard grenade blasts.
Raw video: Sights and sounds outside the upscale Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, as people escape armed gunmen who stormed the center.
Joseph Ole Lenku, Kenya’s Secretary for Defense and Internal Affairs, later said government security forces had taken over the mall and that the situation was “under control,” but gunfire could still be heard several hours after the attack began and al-Shabab claimed its fighters were still inside battling the government forces.
Reports on the number of dead varied widely.
Lenku said that 11 people were killed and about 40 injured, while Nairobi’s mortuary superintendent, Sammy Nyongesa Jacob, told the AP that at least 23 bodies had been transported from the scene.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf called the attack a “senseless act of violence that has resulted in death and injury for many innocent men, women, and children.”
She said that the department had received reports that Americans were among the injured, but declined to provide details, citing privacy concerns. Federal sources told NBC News that the FBI was monitoring the situation and would take the lead if Americans are confirmed to be among the casualties.
Lenku added that it was too early in the investigation to declare who or what organization specifically was behind Saturday’s attack.
But Al-Shabab tweeted that the attack was “retribution.” The group vowed in late 2011 to carry out a large-scale attack in Nairobi in retaliation for Kenya’s sending of troops into Somalia to fight the Islamic insurgents and had specifically threatened the Westgate mall, a popular spot for wealthy Kenyans and tourists.
Witnesses told Reuters that they saw about five armed assailants storm the beige stone building and that the incident appeared to be an attack rather than an armed robbery.
“They don’t seem like thugs, this is not a robbery incident,” Yukeh Mannasseh, who was on the mall’s top floor when the shooting started, told the news agency. “It seems like an attack. The guards who saw them said they were shooting indiscriminately.”
One witness who identified himself as Taha said he heard the screech of brakes followed moments later by an explosion and then sustained gunfire from the ground floor.
NBC News’ Kristen Welker and Charlene Gubash and Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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