by Chrispinus Omar, Christine Lagat, Peter Mutai, Chris Mgidu and Njoroge Kaburo
NAIROBI, Sept. 21 (Xinhua) -- The death toll in an attack by gunmen on a popular upmarket shopping mall in the Kenyan capital Nairobi on Saturday rose to 39, according to Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta.
"They have killed at least 39 innocent people and injured more than 150 others. With the entire nation, I stand with the families of those who have lost their lives and extend every Kenyan's deepest condolences," Kenyatta said in a televised speech.
The emotional Kenyatta also confirmed that he lost some of his very close family members. "I know how you feel, having also personally lost very close family members. I ask God to give all of us comfort as we confront this tragedy."
He said "the despicable perpetrators of the cowardly act that left both locals and foreigners dead or injured hoped to intimidate, divide and cause despondency among Kenyans." He said security has been enhanced across the East Africa nation, with numerous measures put in place to hunt down perpetrators of the heinous act.
The government stands ready to defend the nation from internal and external aggressors, he said. Kenya has overcome terrorist attacks before and will defeat them again, he addressed.
"We shall hunt down the perpetrators wherever they run to. We shall get them. We shall punish them for this heinous crime," he said.
Kenyatta made the speech as the standoff continues into the night between police officers and the armed men in the mall, hours after the shootout began in the morning.
The Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) secretary general Abbas Gullet told Xinhua earlier that rescue operation is still underway, expressing fears that there would be more casualties since some of the shoppers are still holed up in the mall. However, Kenya's interior ministry is not sure whether there are hostages inside the mall.
KRCS officials also told Xinhua that currently there are no Chinese casualties in the attack. The Chinese Embassy in Kenya's capital Nairobi said that the preliminary findings showed that there are no Chinese casualties so far in the attack. RETALIATION
Somalia's militant group Al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility of the attack, saying in its twitter account "HSM Press Office" that "The Mujahideen entered #Westgate Mall today at around noon and are still inside the mall, fighting the #Kenyan Kuffar inside their own turf."
"Since our last contact, the Mujahideen inside the mall confirmed to @HSM_Press that they killed over 100 Kenyan kuffar & battle is ongoing," the group said.
"HSM has on numerous occasions warned the Kenyan government that failure to remove its forces from Somalia would have severe consequences." "The Kenyan government, however, turned a deaf ear to our repeated warnings and continued to massacre innocent Muslims in Somalia," the group said.
"By land, air and sea, #Kenyan forces invaded our Muslim country, killing hundreds of Muslims in the process and displacing thousands more," the group said, adding "The attack at # WestgateMall is just a very tiny fraction of what Muslims in Somalia experience at the hands of Kenyans invaders."
The group said the attack is "retributive justice for crimes" committed by Kenya's military, and "now it's time to shift the battleground and take the war to their land."
The group said the message sent to the Kenyan government and public "is and has always been just one: remove all your forces from our country."
The East African country has been scrambling with insecurity since October 2011, when the Kenya Defense Forces launched a cross- border incursion into southern Somalia in pursuit of Al-Shabaab militants, who had kidnapped several foreigners on the side of Kenya along the border, posing a serious threat to the country's pillar industry of tourism.
In the latest development, Kenyan police said they are holding a suspect in connection to the attack. Inspector General of Police David Kimaiyo said the suspect believed to have been involved in the attack was escorted to hospital by police in an operation carried out by a contingent of police officers who have surrounded the mall.
"We have detained the Westgate Mall attack suspect in hospital. One gunman was wounded while several others have been pinned down, " Kimaiyo told a news conference in Nairobi.
Kenyan presidency later confirmed that the gunman who had been arrested succumbed to bullet wounds.
Authorities have already moved in elite troops with the backing of armored vehicles to reinforce the police force surrounding the shopping mall, which is frequented by wealthy Kenyans and foreigners. The mall consists of five floors and more than 80 shops as well as a Nakumatt supermarket which is occupied by masked gunmen, according to police.
Witnesses said they thought it was a robbery after they heard of explosion and gunshots. Mutea Iringo, the principal secretary in the ministry, said it was an terror attack rather than a robbery. After the attack, the Google Kenya has also been hacked.
A witness who did not give the name told Xinhua that he heard explosion and saw masked gunmen shooting before he hid in a men's room. He said the gunmen were speaking the language that he did not understand.
Another anonymous witness said the gunmen shot dead the security guards and then opened fire shop by shop.
The group of gunmen entered the mall at around 10:30 a.m. local time. However, they did not say anything conclusive about their demands.
A hostage freshly released by the captors reported machine-gun shooting at crowds of shoppers and many bodies on the ground after the killing spree.
Workers at the shopping mall said the hooded gunmen numbering around 10 attacked the building from the second floor of the shopping mall, where there was a media event. Some gunmen were seen armed with sophisticated weapons and shooting indiscriminately, while ordering people to lie on the ground.
"I heard an explosion followed by heavy shootout. I and my colleague tried to hide and then after some time, she escaped through the fire exist," Vivian Atieno, who works as a sales lady at mall, told Xinhua.
She said there were still more casualties trapped inside the building.
"Some of the workers and shoppers who attempted to escape were shot at and died instantly. Those injured were attempting to jump from the second to the first and then exit area but they could not manage," said David Muthee, who escaped from the mall.
According to the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, U.S. citizens were among the injured. "We have reports of American citizens injured in the attack, and the U.S. Embassy is actively reaching out to provide assistance."
"We condemn this senseless act of violence that has resulted in death and injury for many innocent men, women, and children. Our condolences go out to the families and friends of all victims," said a statement issued by the U.S. embassy.
The international community expressed concerned with the situation after attack and has been in constant touch with the Kenyan government. A statement from New York said the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon "is following closely and with alarm the attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi."
The statement said Ban has spoken to President Uhuru Kenyatta and expressed his concern as well as offered his solidarity as the Kenyan authorities handle the incident.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague also expressed concern over the attack, saying in a statement that he was "appalled by the attack." He said he was in close touch with Kenyan authorities about the attack in Nairobi, noting that his urgent priority is the welfare of British nationals in Kenya.
Unconfirmed reports said a suspect involved in the attack has been escorted to hospital by police in an operation carried out by a contingent of police officers who have surrounded the mall.