At least six people were killed Tuesday when an Islamist suicide bomber and gunmen stormed an upmarket hotel complex in Nairobi, in the first such attack in the Kenyan capital in five years.
Gunshots rang out sporadically as night fell in Nairobi, where police combed the hotel and outlying office buildings for survivors while trying to flush out the attackers.
The attack at the DusitD2 compound, which includes a 101-room hotel, restaurant and office buildings housing local and international companies, began at 3 pm (1200 GMT) with a massive explosion heard five kilometres (three miles) away at the AFP bureau.
The Al-Qaeda linked Somalian group Al-Shabaab, which carried out a notorious assault on a Nairobi shopping mall in 2013, claimed responsibility, according to the SITE Intelligence Group which monitors jihadist activities.
“We can now confirm that this criminal activity commenced at about three o’clock in a coordinated fashion and began at I&M Bank with an explosion that targeted three vehicles in the parking lot, and a suicide explosion in the foyer of Dusit hotel,” said Kenyan police chief Joseph Boinnet.
He said “a number of guests suffered serious injuries” but did not give a figure for fatalities.
An AFP photographer saw the bodies of five dead, slumped over tables on a restaurant terrace in the complex. An official at the MP Shah hospital in Nairobi told Citizen TV that seven wounded had been admitted, one of whom had died.
Meanwhile a police source, who asked not to be named, said he had seen as many as 14 dead.
Elite police forces evacuated terrified workers barricaded in offices for up to seven hours after the explosion, which was followed by an hour of sustained gunfire.
A number of heavily armed foreign forces, who appeared to be from embassies based in Nairobi, were at the scene alongside Kenyan security officers.
It was unclear how many people were still hiding inside office buildings or the hotel, owned by Thailand’s giant Dusit Thani Group.
“I can now report we have secured all the buildings … we are in the final stages of mopping up the area,” said Interior Minister Fred Matiangi.
Simon Crump, who works in the complex, said terrified workers had barricaded themselves inside their offices after “several” explosions.
“We have no idea what is happening. Gunshots are coming from multiple directions,” he told AFP a few hours before he was also evacuated.
One survivor evacuated from the building, speaking to a local television station, said the attackers were: “very confident they were people who knew what they were doing”.
– ‘A flash and a bang’ –
John Maingi said there had been “a flash of lights and a loud bang” at the Secret Garden restaurant where he works.
“When I peeped outside I saw a human leg which has been cut off. We hid in the room and then some police officers rescued us,” he said.
Shortly after the attack began flames and plumes of black smoke billowed into the sky from the parking lot where several cars where ablaze.
Police sirens echoed through the city and two helicopters buzzed overhead while ambulances with flashing lights lined up outside the hotel.
A private security guard at the scene told AFP he had seen four “gangsters” entering the compound.
An AFP reporter saw a bomb disposal squad blow up a car which they said the attackers had driven to the complex.
– Shabaab –
The attack at DusitD2 is the first in Nairobi since gunmen stormed the city’s Westgate shopping mall in 2013, killing at least 67 people. The attack and ensuing siege lasted around four days.
That assault was also claimed by Somalia’s Shabaab, who have been fighting to overthrow the internationally backed government in Mogadishu since 2007.
The Westgate attack resulted in many upscale establishments and shopping centres in the capital — including the Dusit — putting up strict security barriers checking vehicles and pedestrians.
The Shabaab targeted Kenya after it sent its army into Somalia in October 2011 to fight the jihadist group.
On April 2, 2015, another Shabaab attack killed 148 people at the university in Garissa, eastern Kenya.
In its statement, the Shabaab noted the attack came exactly three years after its fighters overran a Kenyan military base in Somalia.
“This attack on Nairobi hotel came as Kenyans and their media are commemorating (the) El Adde attack,” it said.
The Shabaab claimed more than 200 soldiers died in that assault, while the government has refused to give its own toll or disclose details.