NAIROBI: Extremists launched a deadly attack on a luxury hotel in Kenya's capital on Tuesday, sending people fleeing in panic as explosions and heavy gunfire reverberated through the complex. A witness said he saw five bodies at the hotel entrance alone.
Al-Shabab — the Somalia-based Islamic extremist group that carried out the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi that left 67 people dead — claimed responsibility. "It is terrible. What I have seen is terrible," said a man who ran from the scene, Charles Njenga.
As night fell, gunfire continued more than two hours after the first shots were heard at the complex, which includes the DusitD2 hotel, along with bars, restaurants, banks and offices and is in a well-to-do neighbourhood with large numbers of American, European and Indian expatriates. It was not clear how many attackers took part.
"We are aware that armed criminals are holing up in the hotel, and special forces are now currently flushing them out," said Kenya's national police chief, Joseph Boinnet, describing the assault as a suspected terror attack. Boinnet gave no figures on the dead and wounded.
However, a Kenyan police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media said that bodies were seen in restaurants downstairs and in offices upstairs, but "there was no time to count the dead."
Also, a witness who gave his name only as Ken said he saw five bodies at the entrance. He said that other people were shouting for help and "when we rushed back to try to rescue them, gunshots started coming from upstairs, and we had to duck because they were targeting us and we could see two guys shooting."
Kenyan hospitals appealed for blood donations even as the number of wounded remained unclear.
The violence appeared to fit the pattern of the attacks which Al-Shabab often carries out in Somalia's capital, with an explosion followed by a group of gunmen storming the place. Like the Westgate Mall attack, this one appeared aimed at wealthy Kenyans and foreigners living in the country.
The attack came a day after a magistrate ruled that three men must stand trial on charges they were involved in the Westgate Mall siege. A fourth suspect was freed for lack of evidence. Tuesday's violence left blood and glass all over. Several vehicles burned, sending black smoke rising over the complex. People were rushed, some carried, from the scene. Some ducked behind cars, screaming, while others took cover behind fountains and other features at the lush complex.
Ambulances, security forces and firefighters converged along with a bomb disposal unit, and vehicles were cordoned off for fear they contained explosives. Police said they blew up a car that had explosives inside. An unexploded grenade was also seen in a hallway at the complex.
Security forces hurried out a large group of women, one of them still in curlers. Dozens of others were rushed to safety as plainclothes officers went shop to shop in the complex. Some people held up their hands to show they were unarmed.
Al-Shabab has vowed retribution against Kenya for sending troops to Somalia since 2011. The al-Qaida-linked group has killed hundreds of people in Kenya, which has been targeted more than any other of the six countries providing troops to an African Union force in Somalia.
The attack immediately brought to mind the Westgate Mall massacre, when al-Shabab extremists burst into the luxury shopping centre, hurling grenades and starting a dayslong siege. In 2015, al-Shabab claimed responsibility for an attack on Kenya's Garissa University that killed 147 people, mostly students.
Tuesday's violence also came three years to the day after al-Shabab extremists attacked a Kenyan military base in Somalia, killing scores of people. A Kenyan intelligence official said the country had been on high alert since November, with information about potential attacks on high-profile targets in Nairobi. The official was not authorized to talk to the media and spoke on condition of anonymity. A Somali diplomat who likewise spoke on condition of anonymity said Somali officials were in the hotel for meetings at the time of the attack and several were feared to still be inside.
Despite the years of bloodshed, the Kenya-Somalia border remains porous, with al-Shabab extremists able to easily bribe their way across, according to a U.N. panel of experts.
The hotel complex in Nairobi's Westlands neighbourhood is about a mile (2 kilometres) from Westgate Mall on a relatively quiet, tree-lined road in what is considered one of the most secure parts of the city. The hotel's website says it is "cocooned away from the hustle and bustle in a secure and peaceful haven." On Monday, the Dusit hotel promoted its spa by tweeting: "Is your new year off to a rough start?"