A New York University student and a Briton were confirmed to be among the 14 people killed in a terrifying attack at a hotel complex in Nairobi as it was brought to an end Wednesday.
The hours-long assault, launched Tuesday by heavily armed militants, targeted the DusitD2 compound, an upmarket cluster of shops and hotel facilities in the Kenyan capital.
“The security operation at Dusit complex is over, and all the terrorists eliminated,” President Uhuru Kenyatta told reporters without giving details. “Fourteen innocent lives were lost through the hands of these murderers, terrorists.”
More than 700 people were evacuated to safety in the course of the attack, he added.
Shortly before Kenyatta declared it over, gunshots and explosions could still be heard at the scene.
An American, Jason Spindler, was identified by his employer as one of those killed in the attack. He was co-founder and managing director of I-DEV International, a firm advising on business strategy for emerging markets.
Spindler was a student at NYU’s Law School. The university released a statement, remembering him as someone who dedicated his life to improving the lives of others.
“Jason is warmly remembered by those who knew him at NYU Law. His tragic death is a loss not only to his loved ones, but to the community of individuals dedicated to improving the lives of others through social enterprise.”
A British man is also among the dead, the UK High Commissioner to Kenya said. The victim has not yet been named.
The coordinated attack started Tuesday afternoon local time as an unknown number of gunmen attacked the complex, leading to a standoff that continued through the night, with people trapped in various parts of the buildings hours later.
Security camera footage showed at least three armed men, dressed in dark clothing and with their faces uncovered, moving through the compound.
Witness: ‘I saw a human leg flying’
Alice Mwanza, 26, who works within the complex in a building adjacent to the hotel, was one of those trapped for several hours as the assault unfolded.
“Yesterday around 3 p.m., we heard an explosion and immediately we could see smoke through the office window. Out of curiosity I asked my friends to come with me so we could see what’s happening. We thought it was fire from one of the buildings. However, as we took the stairs to the ground floor I saw a human leg flying and my workmates saw it too and now we could hear gun shots,” she told CNN.
The group took shelter inside a soundproof studio and were rescued more than three hours later by police and Red Cross workers, who gave them first aid, she said.
“After we were discharged, I was given some pills to calm down and later at home I had this scary flashback of that human leg flying, I had to sleep with my lights on. Coming out safe I was so grateful to God, especially the news of so many people dead,” said Mwanza.
David Mureithi recounted how he and others were told by office security staff to flee through a back door after hearing an explosion followed by gunshots. “We could hear the gunshots getting closer and rapid,” he told CNN.
Two of his colleagues who had gone to get lunch shortly beforehand were killed, he said.
“I have worked in Somalia before, but the explosions or the gunshots [there] were heard from a safe distance,” he said. “Yesterday I tried acting calm but honestly this is terrifying, how close the attack was, more devastating and sad for losing two of our personnel.
“I thank God I came out alive, I watched the news and it’s still terrifying. ”
Security services praised
Friends and relatives of those still unaccounted for anxiously waited for word on their loved ones early Wednesday as the interior ministry announced that authorities had evacuated people from the compound, and the site had been secured.
Sporadic gunfire continued for hours after that all-clear before Kenyatta declared the incident over.
The President praised Kenya’s security services for their swift response, saying: “The operational priority of the security services was first and foremost to safeguard civilian life.”
Abbas Gullet, secretary general of the Kenya Red Cross, also hailed the rescue effort. “To have gotten out over 700 people out of that place, one would have to go in to understand and imagine what it took to get there,” he told CNN.
The Red Cross in Nairobi launched a blood drive to help the victims and urged people to donate. It also said it had launched a line to provide counseling and connect people who were searching for loved ones.
Terror group claims responsibility
A source helping with security at the hotel called the death toll “conservative,” and said it was expected to rise. The US State Department confirmed that the fatalities included a US citizen, but did not provide details.
A friend of Jason Spindler, Chris Schroeder, described him on Twitter as “one of those rare men who was loved by pretty much anyone (he) touched in Kenya and around the world.”
Schroeder added: “He chose a life of hope and inclusion. I am grateful to have known and learned from him.”
Somali Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. It’s the highest profile terror attack in the East African country in years, and happened three years to the day after Al-Shabaab militants targeted a Kenyan military base in neighboring Somalia, killing dozens of soldiers.
In 2013, Al-Shabaab militants targeted the luxury shopping center of Westgate, killing 67 people in a siege that lasted several days. Westgate is about two miles away from the site of Tuesday’s attack.
Militants from the group also killed nearly 150 people, most of them students, in a brutal attack on Garissa University College in Kenya in April 2015.
Attack started with car bombs
The latest attack began at a bank inside the compound Tuesday afternoon. An explosion ripped through three vehicles in the parking lot, followed by a suicide blast in the foyer of the Dusit Hotel, said the nation’s police chief, Joseph Boinnet.
Crowds in bloodied clothes fled as armed officers escorted office workers to safety amid the gunfire. The flames in the parking lot raged, with the smoke visible from buildings far away in Nairobi’s affluent Westlands neighborhood.
“As we were leaving, there were gunshots all over the place,” said Evans Ng’ong’a, who was also inside the complex. “Attackers jumped over the fence and started shooting after the explosion.”
In a series of tweets, US Ambassador to Kenya Bob Godec condemned the attacks and said all embassy personnel in Kenya were safe.
The European Union also offered its condolences to those affected and pledged its continued support to Kenya.
“Kenya’s stand against terrorism, at home and abroad, is a necessary fight against a challenge that we all face — being it in Africa, in Europe or in the rest of the world — which will contribute to bringing peace, stability and prosperity to the country, the region and beyond,” it said in a statement.