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Heavy gunfire and explosions heard as siege continues at Kenyan shopping mall

As the stand-off enters its third day, sustained bursts of rapid gunfire erupted at dawn and lasted 15 minutes, and soldiers posted around the complex ducked for cover.

HEAVY GUNFIRE AND loud explosions have been heard at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall this morning as Kenyan troops fought Somali militants who were holding hostages after massacring at least 68 people.

As the stand-off enters its third day, sustained bursts of rapid gunfire erupted at dawn and lasted 15 minutes, and soldiers posted around the complex ducked for cover.

This was followed by three big explosions, AFP correspondents at the scene said.

The Kenyan army said it had secured most of the upmarket, part Israeli-owned complex, while a security source said a final assault was underway against the Al Qaeda-linked Somali Shebab rebels, believed to be pinned down in a part of the mall but using hostages as human shields.

“Our concern is to rescue all hostages alive and that is why the operation is delicate,” the Kenya Defence Forces said in a statement overnight, adding that it was trying to bring a “speedy conclusion” to the drama.

Somali Shebab militants threatened to kill hostages they are holding in a Nairobi shopping mall as Kenyan troops move to end their siege.

“We authorise the mujahedeen inside the building to take actions against the prisoners as much as they are pressed,” Ali Mohamud Rage said in a statement posted on an Islamist website.

“We are telling Christians advancing onto the mujahedeen to have mercy for their prisoners who will bear the brunt of any force directed against the mujahedeen,” Rage added.

The Al-Qaeda linked group claimed to be in contact with the fighters inside the mall. It also said the gunmen were battling both Kenyan and Israeli forces.

It did not say how many people were being held by the dozen-or-so attackers, who marched into the sprawling four-storey complex at midday Saturday, spraying shoppers with machine gun fire and tossing grenades.

imageKenya Securiy personal take cover outside the Westgate Mall earlier today (AP Photo/Sayyid Azim)

‘Beastly acts’

In an address to the nation on Sunday, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta vowed the attackers will “not get away with their despicable and beastly acts.”

“We will punish the masterminds swiftly, and indeed very painfully,” he vowed, revealing that a family member — a nephew and his fiancee — were among the dead.

A Kenyan security source and a Western intelligence official said Israelis were involved in the operation, along with British and US agents.

Terrified witnesses told of scenes of horror and panic as the masked gunmen stormed in. Officials estimated some 200 people have been wounded, and the Red Cross made a nationwide appeal for blood donors.

Police sources who had entered the building on last evening said they feared that death toll, now confirmed at 68, “could be much, much higher… judging from the bodies sighted inside.”

Somalia’s Shebab rebels said the carnage was in retaliation for Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia, where African Union troops are battling the Islamists.

A number of witnesses have been quoted as saying that the gunmen were trying to weed out non-Muslims for execution by interrogating people on their faith or asking them to say the Shahada, or Islamic creed.

The dead also included three Britons, two French women, two Canadians including a diplomat, a Chinese woman, two Indians, a South Korean, a South African and a Dutch woman, according to their governments. Also killed was Ghanaian poet and former UN envoy Kofi Awoonor, 78, while his son was injured.

Played dead to avoid being killed

imageRelatives wait at the Nairobi City Mortuary following the mall attack in Kenya (AP Photo/Khalil Senosi)

Mall worker Zipporah Wanjiru, who emerged from the ordeal alive but in a state of shock, said she hid under a table with five other colleagues.

“They were shooting indiscriminately, it was like a movie seeing people sprayed with bullets like that,” she said, bursting into tears. “I have never witnessed this in my life.”

Cafe waiter Titus Alede, who risked his life and leapt from the first floor of the mall, said it was a “miracle from God” that he managed to escape the approaching gunmen.

“I remember them saying ‘you killed our people in Somalia, it is our time to pay you back’,” he said.

One teenage survivor told how he played dead to avoid being killed.

“I heard screams and gunshots all over the place. I got scared… (and) hid behind one of the cars,” 18-year-old Umar Ahmed told AFP.

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.

Israeli interests in Kenya have come under attack before, and the Westgate mall has long been seen as a potential target.

World powers condemned the attack, which is the worst in Nairobi since an Al-Qaeda bombing at the US embassy killed more than 200 people in 1998.

US President Barack Obama called Kenyatta offering support “to bring the perpetrators of the attack to justice”, while UN chief Ban Ki-moon said the violence was “totally reprehensible”.

Kenya’s Vice President William Ruto has asked the International Criminal Court to delay his trial for crimes against humanity over deadly 2007-08 post-election violence because of the mall standoff, his lawyer said.

© AFP 2013

UPDATE: 59 people killed in Kenya attack and 175 injured

Read: Shoppers killed in gun attack at upmarket Kenyan shopping mall

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