NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Extremists launched a deadly attack on a luxury hotel in Kenya’s capital 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 Charles Njenga, who ran from a scene of blood, broken glass, burning vehicles and black smoke.
The coordinated assault began with an explosion that targeted three vehicles outside a bank, and a suicide bombing in the hotel lobby that severely wounded a number of guests, said Kenya’s national police chief, Joseph Boinnet.
Survivors reported hearing a shattering blast and saw people mowed down by gunmen as they sat at a cafe. Victims were left lying on tables, bleeding.
“We were changing our shifts, and that is when I heard a loud blast and people were screaming,” said Enoch Kibet, who works as a cleaner at the cafe and managed to crawl out of a gate in the basement. “I couldn’t believe I was alive. The blast was so loud and shook the whole complex.”
Authorities sent special forces into the hotel to flush out the gunmen believed holed up inside. Well after nightfall, more than five hours after the attack began, Boinnet said the counter-operation was still going on.
It was not clear how many attackers laid siege to the complex, which includes the DusitD2 hotel, along with bars, restaurants, banks and offices and is in a well-to-do neighborhood with large numbers of American, European and Indian expatriates.
Boinnet did not disclose the number of dead.
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.
Associated Press video from inside the hotel showed Kenyan security officers anxiously searching the building and scared workers emerging from hiding while gunfire could still be heard. Some women climbed out of windows. One man got up from the floor where he appeared to be trying to hide under a piece of wood paneling, then showed his ID badge.
As officers searched luxury fashion displays, wounded people were carried away on stretchers.
Like al-Shabab’s Westgate Mall attack, this one appeared aimed at wealthy Kenyans and foreigners living in the country. It came a day after a magistrate ruled that three men must stand trial in connection with the Westgate Mall siege. A fourth suspect was freed for lack of evidence.
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.
Tuesday’s carnage demonstrated al-Shabbab’s continued ability to carry out spectacular acts of bloodshed despite a dramatic increase in U.S. airstrikes against it under President Donald Trump.
In the Westgate Mall massacre, al-Shabab extremists burst into the luxury shopping center, 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.
Gunfire could be heard for hours after Tuesday’s attack began. Several vehicles burned, sending black smoke rising over the complex. Some people 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.
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 neighborhood is about a mile (2 kilometers) 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 hotel promoted its spa by tweeting: “Is your new year off to a rough start?”
Associated Press writer Abdi Guled in Nairobi contributed.