An upscale mall popular with the Kenyan elite and the foreign diplomats and businesspeople who call Nairobi their home turned into a war zone yesterday, as gunmen opened fire on shoppers in an apparent terrorist attack, killing at least 30 people and wounding dozens more.
At nightfall, the mall remained sealed off to the public as police officers and soldiers searched floor by floor for the gunmen, who were still believed to be inside with hostages.
"The attackers have been isolated and are pinned down in an area on one of the floors. The rest of the mall seems to be secure," a security source said.
A witness to the attacks said that gunmen told Muslims to stand up and leave and that non-Muslims would be targeted.
The Somali militant group al-Shabab had threatened to strike the Westgate mall, popular with the city's expatriate community; but there was no immediate claim of responsibility.
The attack started with several blasts at about 12.30pm at the mall, west of the city centre, and was followed by shooting, causing panicked shoppers to flee the building or try to hide.
Manish Turohit, 18, said he saw gunmen, which some reports said numbered up to 10, with AK-47s and vests with hand grenades on them inside the mall before he escaped to hide in a parking garage for two hours.
"They just came in and threw a grenade. We were running and they opened fire. They were shouting and firing," he said after being marched out of the mall in line with about 15 people who held their hands in the air.
Shocked people - black, white and Indian - could be seen running away from the centre clutching children while others crawled along walls to avoid stray bullets. The mall - which has several Israeli-owned businesses, is a hub for Nairobi-based Westerners and one of the foremost symbols of Kenya's affluent classes - has long been considered a potential terror target.
Television reports said hostages had been taken, but there was no official confirmation.
Some shoppers ran up stairs and escalators and hid around the mall's cinema complex. Police found another terrified group hiding in a toilet.
Army and elite security forces joined the police, who were going from shop to shop to evacuate terrified people.
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. Others walked out, some with bloodied clothing wrapped around wounds.
Agence France-Presse, Reuters, Associated Press