39 dead in Kenya mall shooting; al-Qaeda militant group claims responsibility

kenyaNairobi, Kenya (CNN) — Armed gunmen faced off with Kenyan police and soldiers inside an upscale Nairobi shopping mall early Sunday, hours after brazenly gunning down shoppers, diners and more.

Around 2:30 a.m. Sunday (6:30 p.m. ET Saturday) — an hour after reporting five “visibly shaken” hostages had been released — Kenya’s National Disaster Operation Centre cryptically tweeted “major operations underway.” What that meant was a mystery, and it didn’t quell fears about what has happened or might happen to an unknown number of civilians who were still unaccounted for inside.

There were 39 confirmed dead as of around midnight Saturday, according to Kenya’s president, who added his close relatives are among those killed. Two gunmen, including one who was detained after being shot, are also dead.

Francis Kimenia, secretary to the Cabinet, tweeted another 293 people got treatment at three area hospitals, which “are appealing for more blood.” The wounded range in age from 2 to 78, the disaster operations center said, urging people to “remember them in your prayers.”

Al-Shabaab, an al Qaeda-linked militant group based in Somalia with ties to Nairobi’s Eastleigh district and whose most recent attack of this scale came July 2010 in Uganda’s capital, claimed responsibility for the carnage and vowed not to negotiate with Kenyan authorities. It claimed that “all Muslims” were escorted from the mall before the attack, suggesting its targets were people who didn’t believe in their extreme form of Islam.

“The Mujahideen are still strong inside #Westgate Mall and still holding their ground,” the group said late Saturday via Twitter. “All praise is due to Allah!”

Kenyan authorities, though, insist they have the upper hand, where it’s now early Sunday morning. The last few hours of Saturday and the first few of Sunday, in Kenya, were largely quiet outside the mall except for movement

Police tweeted that the attackers “have been isolated and pinned down in a room by security forces.” And Joseph Ole Lenku, the national government’s cabinet secretary for interior and coordination, hinted that the worst should be over.

“Our security forces have taken control of the situation,” Lenku said.

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