NAIROBI: Special forces protect people at the scene of an explosion at a hotel complex in Nairobi’s Westlands suburb yesterday. – AFP

NAIROBI: A huge blast followed by a gun battle rocked an upmarket hotel and office complex in Nairobi yesterday in an attack claimed by the Al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab Islamist group. The explosion at the DusitD2 compound, which includes a 101-room hotel, restaurant and office buildings housing local and international companies, was heard from AFP’s bureau some five kilometers away. Al-Shabaab, which carried out a notorious assault on a Nairobi shopping mall in 2013, claimed responsibility, according to the SITE Intelligence Group which monitors militant activities.

An AFP photographer saw five bodies slumped over tables on a restaurant terrace in the complex, while a police source said he had seen up to 14 dead. An unnamed eyewitness told Citizen TV he had also seen five bodies, however it was unclear if these were the same victims. A senior police officer who was among the first at the scene but who asked not to be named, said he had seen as many as 14 dead. “There could be more upstairs. There are 14 scattered at the ground floor offices and restaurant lobbies. Some are lying on the ground while others are leaning on the table which is scattered with food.”

Elite police forces evacuated terrified workers barricaded in offices after an hour of sustained gunfire as they engaged the attackers. Sporadic shots were still heard hours after the blast. “We are aware that there are armed criminals still holed up and our officers are trying to flush them out,” said Inspector General of police Joseph Boinnet. “We regret to inform you that there have been injuries in the attack and we are in the process of confirming the numbers.”

Simon Crump, who works in the complex, said terrified workers barricaded themselves inside their offices after “several” explosions. “We have no idea what is happening. Gunshots are coming from multiple directions,” he told AFP. He later said that police had evacuated workers from the building, and it was not clear how many were still trapped. “A lot of people ran when the first few explosions happened, there was a mad rush for the exit,” he said.

John Maingi said there had been “a flash of lights and a loud bang” at the Secret Garden restaurant where he works. “When I peeped outside I saw a human leg which has been cut off. We hid in the room and then some police officers rescued us,” he said. Shortly after the attack began flames and plumes of black smoke billowed into the sky from the parking lot where several cars where ablaze. Police sirens echoed through the city and two helicopter buzzed overhead while ambulances with flashing lights lined up outside the hotel.

A private security guard at the scene told AFP he had seen four “gangsters” entering the compound. “All police teams have been dispatched to the scene where the incident is. As at now we are treating it as anything, including the highest attack,” police spokesman Charles Owino said by phone. “All police teams including anti-terror officers are at the scene,” he said. An AFP reporter saw a bomb disposal squad blow up a car which they said had been used by the attackers to arrive at the complex.

Meanwhile, the vast upscale Village Market shopping center in northern Nairobi said on Twitter that it had closed temporarily as a “security precaution”. The attack at DusitD2 is the first in Nairobi in five years, when gunmen stormed the city’s Westgate shopping mall, killing at least 67 people. The attack and ensuing siege lasted around four days. That assault was also claimed by Somalia’s Shabaab, which have been fighting to overthrow the internationally-backed government in Mogadishu since 2007.

The Westgate attack resulted in many upscale establishments and shopping centers in the capital – including the Dusit – putting up strict security barriers checking vehicles and pedestrians. The Shabaab targeted Kenya after it sent its army into Somalia in Oct 2011 to fight the group. On April 2, 2015, another Shabaab attack killed 148 people at the university in Garissa, eastern Kenya.

In its statement, the Shabaab noted the attack came exactly three years after its fighters overran a Kenyan military base in Somalia. “This attack on Nairobi hotel came as Kenyans and their media are commemorating (the) El Adde attack,” it said. The Shabaab claimed more than 200 soldiers died in that assault. The government has refused to give its own toll or disclose details of the attack. – Agencies