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At least 21 killed, including an American, as Kenya hotel siege is declared over

Posted at 8:15 PM, Jan 16, 2019

An American and a Briton were confirmed to be among at least 21 people killed in an attack at a hotel complex in Nairobi as the incident was brought to an end Wednesday.

The hourslong 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. He called the attackers terrorists.

More than 700 people were evacuated to safety in the course of the attack, he said.

Shortly before Kenyatta declared the attack over, gunshots and explosions could still be heard at the scene.

Six more bodies were found late Wednesday at the scene, according to Inspector General of Police Joseph Boinett, speaking live on local television station Citizen TV. That brought the death toll to 21.

Boinett said 16 Kenyans, one Briton, one American, and three unidentified people of African origin are among the dead. Twenty-eight other people have been hospitalized.

Jason Spindler, an American who survived the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, 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.

A British man is also among the dead, the UK high commissioner to Kenya said . He was named by development organization Gatsby Africa as Luke Potter , head of its forestry and tea portfolio.

The coordinated attack started Tuesday afternoon 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.

The Kenya Red Cross said in a Twitter update that at least 30 people had been injured in the attack and that 50 remained unaccounted for as of 3 p.m. (7 a.m. ET) Wednesday.

Somali Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack and said it was a response to US President Donald Trump's 2017 decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, according to a statement circulated Wednesday.

"In a response to the witless remarks of US President, Donald Trump, and his declaration" of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the group targeted "Western and Zionist interests worldwide ... in support of our Muslim families in Palestine."

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 said.

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 said.

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 said.

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 hot line to provide counseling and connect people who were searching for loved ones.

Tributes paid to victims

A friend of 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."

Gatsby Africa described Potter as having devoted the past 10 years "to helping some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world" and said he would be greatly missed by his family, partner, daughter, friends and colleagues.

"Luke was respected by all he worked with, bringing huge drive, determination, a relentless work ethic, and a thirst for new ideas to every project," the statement said. "He brought a calm head and his unique sense of humor to every situation. He was deeply committed to his work, to his teams, to Gatsby and to development in Africa."

The attack 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 2 miles away from the site of Tuesday's attack.

Militants from the group also killed nearly 150 people, most of them students, in an 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 Boinnet, the nation's police chief.

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 State Department mentioned Spindler's family in a statement.

"These craven attacks are a stark reminder of why the United States remains resolved in our fight to defeat terrorism," it said in a statement. "We stand with the Kenyan government and people as they confront violent extremism and work to bring the perpetrators to justice."

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.