Faces of the four unidentified terrorists emerged last night, as security forces battled to secure an upscale complex in Nairobi, where victims were believed to be held hostage yesterday.
Somalia-based Al Shabaab terrorists claimed responsibility for the attack on the dusitD2 Hotel, Nairobi, and the complex which it is a part of.
The gunmen shattered the calm at the complex when they stormed in and shot indiscriminately, sending workers and guests scampering for safety.
Witnesses yesterday said the assailants had surveyed their target for two weeks.
The raid coincided with the third anniversary of the terror group’s attack on a Kenyan military camp in El Adde, Somalia, and also came a day after a Kenyan court ruled that three suspects had a case to answer over the 2013 massacre in Westgate shopping mall, not so far from the scene of yesterday’s carnage.
Police Inspector General Joseph Boinnet said the 3pm attack was well coordinated. It started with a raid on a bank, an explosion targeting three vehicles outside and a suicide mission inside the hotel.
Initial reports indicated that the assailants arrived shortly after 3pm in a car registration number KCN 340E, and hurled explosives at guards manning the complex.
The gang first shot and seriously wounded two University of Nairobi students who were walking out of their hostels.
The gunshots alarmed police guarding the Australian Embassy, some 100 metres away. The officers engaged the attackers in a gunfight, deflating the tyres of the saloon car the latter had used.
The gunmen then ran into the building housing the dusitD2, and began to shoot. Guards manning the entrance fled, Shadrack Kirui, a witness, said.
It was at this point that one of the attackers hurled a grenade at three cars parked at the main barrier, setting them on fire. The terrorists then entered the main hotel lobby, where one of them detonated an explosive device he had on his body. His leg was thrown out of the lobby to the main corridor about 40 metres away.
At the lobby lay five bodies, mostly of hotel guests. Police who went to the scene later said the number could be more than 10. Another victim died in hospital.
There were sustained gunshots as the response team at the scene sought reinforcement from special security forces.
Police responded almost immediately, with one team blocking traffic flow on the busy Riverside Drive as others ventured into the hotel to rescue the trapped and injured.
At least 15 people with multiple injuries were rescued minutes later. Most of them were cleaners hit by debris.
Deputy Inspector General of Police Edward Mbugua and Director of Criminal Investigations George Kinoti led the operation.
Special forces from the military and the General Service Unit, and those from various embassies, including the United States’ and United Kingdom’s, arrived at the scene minutes later and helped free dozens trapped.
James Maina, a guard, said the attackers were not new to the facility. He said the men had been visiting the hotel for some time and would park a silver Toyota Ractis and ask him and his colleagues to keep watch as they stopped by the hotel, about a minute’s walk away. They would then emerge with take-away coffee and drive off. “It was a routine that continued for like two weeks,” he said.
The suspects would tip them with “some few hundreds... like one day he (one of the supposed suspects) tipped my friend Sh400.” Maina, however, never mastered the suspects’ faces, as they always wore caps.
Yesterday, Maina said, the same men returned at around 3pm, but did not park as they usually did. They went straight to dusitD2. It was at the hotel’s first security barrier that the confrontation ensued.
According to Kevin Mwema, a student at the University of Nairobi’s Chiromo Campus, adjacent to the hotel, the men’s vehicle was denied access to the hotel. “It's like they had some explosives or something. Two of them stepped out and suddenly an explosion was heard, followed by gunshots and it all turned chaotic,” he said. A student was among those shot.
The explosives are suspected to be grenades the men had in the car. It is said they might have detonated them at the gate, setting cars parked nearby on fire before gaining entry to the hotel.
Okoth Obado, a victim, described the scene as tense. He said his colleague, also trapped in the building, saw two gunmen enter dusitD2. More shots were heard from the ground floor. “It was about 3.25pm when I heard a huge explosion, and immediately told those I was with that we were under attack. The next thing I heard were gunshots, which intensified,” said Mr Okoth.
Okoth, who got out a few minutes to 7pm, said the situation was still tense as security agencies tried to contain the attackers. “The main door of the hotel was blown open and there was a human arm in the street severed from the shoulder,” Serge Medic, a Swiss owner of a security company who ran from his taxi to help victims, told Reuters.
Mr Medic, who was armed, entered the building with a policeman and two soldiers, he said, but they came under fire and retreated. An unexploded grenade lay in the lobby, he said. “One man said he saw two armed men with scarves on their heads and bullets,” Medic told Reuters, as gunfire echoed in the background hours after the attack began.
A woman shot in the leg was carried out and three men emerged covered in blood. Some office workers climbed out of windows. Many told Reuters they had left colleagues behind huddled under their desks. “There’s a grenade in the bathroom,” one officer yelled as police rushed out of one building.
Security personnel in uniform and civilian were dotted everywhere, their eyes hovering around, their index fingers ready to pull the trigger. Ambulances ferried victims to nearby hospitals. Scores were treated of gunshot wounds at KNH, Avenue Hospital, MP Shah, Nairobi and Aga Khan hospitals.
The air was filled with gunshots that left everyone ducking for safety, as the police shouted "lie down! Lie down! Do not move." A Kenya Police helicopter and another from the Kenya Air Force took turns in the skies above the complex.
Some 10 minutes to 7 pm, a man with a bloodstained stripped shirt and a khaki jacket came out crying. “Woooi wooi wooi. It is not good,” he screamed. He claimed he was one of the civilian officers who made their way to the hotel to save people. “I have counted so far five bodies. The situation is not good. Not good at all. It is some Recce officers who came to save us,” he said before another group of civilian officers bundled him away.
Addressing the media at police headquarters at Jogoo House, Mr Boinnet said some people sustained injuries but added that officers were managing the situation.
He said there could still be some armed criminals in the premises, and expressed confidence that police would bring the matter to rest. “The operation is ongoing. Security officers responded quickly and cordoned off the area, and is engaged in flushing the criminals out,” said Boinnett.
“As part of the enhanced vigilance, critical infrastructure and battle installations remain on guard,” said Boinnett, who praised the police for vigilance throughout the festive season.
Gunshots continued to be heard from the hotel as late as 6 pm yesterday.
Helicopters conducted aerial surveillance of the attack area for hours. At the Riverside junction, police held a man in a waiting police Landcruiser but later moved him to a nearby police station. Police also had a hard time controlling a surging crowd trying to have a glimpse of the crime scene.
At about 5.30pm, another explosion went out in the hotel but it was not immediately clear whether it was by the attackers or the security personnel that were battling the terrorists. Some of the victims assisted to walk out of the scene visibly shaken and emotionally drained.
Some walked out bare-footed after losing their shoes at the scene. Several ambulances made trips to rescue some of the victims and took them to various hospitals within Nairobi as late as past 6pm.
Relatives also camped at the Riverside Junction where police put a cordon, as they waited and hoped for their trapped relatives to come out safe.
About 5:30pm the police shouted at that everybody to lie down and a huge explosion was heard. It was later said that the explosion was the anti-bomb squad detonating a bomb that was in the car.
[Reporting by Graham Kajilwa, Cyrus Ombati and Moses Nyamori]