NAIROBI (AFP) - Masked gunmen stormed a teeming upmarket mall in Nairobi Saturday, sprayed gunfire and killing around 20 people before holing themselves up in the complex with hostages.
Police were going shop-to-shop to evacuate terrified people from the Westgate shopping mall, which is popular with wealthy Kenyans and expatriates and generally packed on weekends.
Witnesses said the gunmen spoke Arabic or Somali and executed shoppers, in what appeared to be the worst attack in Nairobi since an Al Qaeda bombing at the US embassy killed more than 200 in 1998.
The Red Cross said that some 20 people had been killed and another 50 wounded in the attack.
As security forces were trying to secure a multi-screen cinema complex on the mall's top floor, a police source said it had been confirmed that the attackers were holding at least seven hostages. An AFP reporter said she saw at least 20 people rescued from a toy shop. Dozens of wounded, some of them bleeding children, were stretchered away from the mall.
A shop manager who managed to escape said at one point "it seemed that the shooters had taken control of all the mall".
"They spoke something that seemed like Arabic or Somali," said a man who escaped the mall and gave his name only as Jay. "I saw people being executed after being asked to say something."
Shocked people could be seen running away from the Westgate centre clutching children while others crawled along walls to avoid stray bullets.
The mall - which has several Israeli-owned businesses, is a hub for Nairobi-based Westerners and one of the foremost symbols of Kenya's affluent classes - has long been considered a potential terror target.
Kenneth Kerich, who was shopping when the attack happened, described scenes of panic.
"I suddenly heard gunshots and saw everyone running around so we lied down. I saw two people who were lying down and bleeding, I think they were hit by bullets," he said.
"Initially we thought it is police fighting thugs. But we could not leave until when officers walked in, shot in the air and told us to get out."
Vehicles riddled with bullet holes were left abandoned in front of the mall as the Red Cross appealed for blood donations and police instructed residents of the Westlands neighbourhood to stay away.
"Our officers are on the ground carrying out an evacuation of those inside as they search for the attackers who are said to be inside," Inspector General of Police David Kimaiyo said.
"We have managed to evacuate some people to safety. We urge Kenyans to avoid the area as we pursue the thugs," Kenya's interior ministry said on Twitter.
The Westgate mall, which opened in 2007, has restaurants, cafes, banks, a large supermarket and a cinema that attract thousands of people every day and have made it a Nairobi landmark.
It is popular with the large expatriate community living in the residential neighbourhoods around it, including with foreign staff from the United Nations, which has its third largest global centre nearby.
Security agencies have regularly included the Westgate shopping centre on lists of sites they feared could be targeted by Al Qaeda-linked groups.
The Somali insurgents from the Shebab group have repeatedly threatened to strike at the heart of Kenya in retaliation for Nairobi's military involvement alongside the government they are trying to overthrow.