NAIROBI, Kenya – The Kenyan military remained in a tense standoff with Islamic extremists Sunday, as the toll rose to 59 dead, including children, and 175 wounded in the attack at an upscale mall, a Kenyan minister said.
Multiple barrages of gunfire erupted Sunday morning from inside the building where hostages are being held by militants. The radicals attacked the mall Saturday and remained inside throughout the night.
“The priority is to save as many lives as possible,” Joseph Lenku said, reassuring the families of the hostages in the upscale Westgate mall. Kenyan forces have already rescued about 1,000 people, he said.
Ten to 15 attackers remain in the mall and Kenyan forces control the security cameras inside the shopping center, Lenku said. Combined military and police forces surrounded the mall in the Westlands neighborhood of Nairobi, which is frequented by foreigners and wealthy Kenyans.
Former Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga told reporters at the mall that he has been told officials couldn’t determine the exact number of hostages inside the mall.
“There are quite a number of people still being held hostage on the third floor and the basement area where the terrorists are still in charge,” Odinga said.
Somalia’s al-Qaida-linked rebel group, al-Shabab, claimed responsibility for the attack in which they used grenades and assault rifles and specifically targeted non-Muslims.
Kenyans and foreigners were among those confirmed dead, including French, Canadians and Chinese.
A 38-year-old Chinese woman was killed in the shopping mall “terror attack,” the Chinese Embassy in Kenya said in a statement Sunday. Her son was injured in the attack and in a stable condition in hospital, according to the statement posted on the embassy’s website.
Nineteen people, including at least four children, died after being admitted to Nairobi’s MP Shah hospital, said Manoj Shah, the hospital’s chairman. “We have at least two critical patients currently, one with bullets lodged near the spine,” he said.
The hospital continued to receive patients Sunday, he said.
Ghanain poet Kofi Awoonor died after being injured in the attack, Ghana’s presidential office confirmed.
Kenya’s presidential office said that one of the attackers was arrested on Saturday and died after suffering from bullet wounds.
Trucks brought in a fresh contingent of soldiers from the Kenya Defense Forces early Sunday.
“Violent extremists continue to occupy Westgate Mall. Security services are there in full force,” said the United States embassy in an emergency text message issued Sunday morning.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said late Saturday that his government had sent a rapid deployment team to Kenya to help. Britons had undoubtedly been caught up in the “callous and cowardly and brutal” assault at the Westgate mall, said Hague.
The United Nations Security Council condemned the attacks and “expressed their solidarity with the people and Government of Kenya” in a statement.
There was some good news on Sunday, as Kenyan media reported that several people in hiding in the mall escaped to safety, suggesting that not everyone who is still inside is being held by al-Shabab.
Cecile Ndwiga said she had been hiding under a car in the basement parking garage.
“I called my husband to ask the soldiers to come and rescue me. Because I couldn’t just walk out anyhow. The shootout was all over here — left, right— just gun shots,” she said.
Nairobi resident Paolo Abenavoli said he is holed up in his apartment only 100 meters from the mall with a direct view of the entrance. He said he could see a dozen or more security forces inside a first floor restaurant.
“The battle is on now,” Abenavoli told The Associated Press by telephone as the fresh gunfire broke out Sunday.
Security forces had pushed curious crowds far back from the mall. Hundreds of residents gathered on a high ridge above the mall to watch for any activity.
Associated Press reporters Tom Odula and Jacob Kushner in Nairobi, Kenya; Louise Watt in Beijing; and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.