Nairobi, Sep 22: Israeli forces have joined Kenyan efforts to end a deadly siege by Somali militants at a Nairobi shopping mall, a security source told AFP Sunday.
"The Israelis have just entered and they are rescuing the hostages and the injured," the source told AFP on condition that he won't be named.
At least 59 people have been confirmed killed in the attack by Somali militants on an upmarket shopping mall in Nairobi, a government minister said on Sunday, as Kenyan troops battled gunmen still holding an unknown number of hostages.
Among the dead was renowned Ghanaian poet and statesmen Kofi Awoonor. Somalia's al-Qaida-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 militants.
Interior minister Joseph Ole Lenku said 59 people were confirmed dead. "A number of attackers are still in the building, and range between 10 to 15 gunmen," he said in a statement. "We believe there are some innocent people in the building, that is why the operation is delicate."
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a televised address to the nation late Saturday that he had lost family members in the 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 at terrified people.
Security agencies have long feared that the shopping centre could be targeted by al-Qaida-linked groups.
The attack was the worst in Nairobi since an al-Qaida bombing at the US embassy killed more than 200 people 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."
One teenage survivor recounted to AFP 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 said.
In the hours after the attack began, shocked people of all ages and races could be seen running 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.
Ghanaian poet Awoonor, 78, who was once his country's representative to the United Nations, was killed while shopping with his son, who was injured in the attack, Ghanaian officials said.
A spokesman for 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," Shabaab 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 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, and later died of his injuries.
EU 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 while 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 the attack "in the strongest possible terms".
Renowned Ghanaian poet and statesman killed
Renowned Ghanaian poet and statesman Kofi Awoonor, 78, was among dead, Ghana's president said Sunday.
John Dramani Mahama said in a statement: "I am shocked to hear the death of Prof Kofi Awoonor in Nairobi mall terrorist attack. Such a sad twist of fate ..."
Awoonor was killed while shopping with his son in the mall, Ghana's deputy information minister Felix Kwakye Ofosu said.
His son was injured and has been discharged from the hospital, Ofosu said. Awoonor had been due to appear at the Storymoja Hay literary festival in Nairobi on Saturday.
Awoonor was Ghana's representative to the United Nations under the presidency of Jerry Rawlings from 1990 to 1994, and was also president of the Council of State, an advisory body to the president. He stepped down from that role earlier this year.
He was a renowned writer, most notably for his poetry inspired by the oral tradition of the Ewe people, to which he belonged.
Much of his best work was published in Ghana's immediate post-independence period, part of which he spent in exile after the first president Kwame Nkrumah, whom Awoonor was close to, was overthrown in a coup.
His books included "Rediscovery and Other Poems," published in 1964. Awoonor returned to Ghana in 1975 and was later arrested and tried over his suspected involvement in a coup, according to a biography from the US-based Poetry Foundation.
He was released after 10 months, and the foundation said his imprisonment influenced his book "The House by the Sea".
During his time in the United States in the early 1970s, Awoonor was chairman of the department of comparative literature at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
He was also Ghana's ambassador to Brazil and Cuba in the 1980s, the foundation said.
Israeli forces enter Nairobi mall amidst carnage; Ghanaian poet among 59 killed