Two explosions and gunfire were heard at an upscale hotel complex in Kenya’s capital on Wednesday afternoon, according to witnesses and police.
“We are under attack,” a person in an office inside the Dusit hotel complex – which also houses offices and banks – told the Reuters news agency. Local television showed smoke rising from the area.
Gunfire continued several minutes after the first reports. Black smoke rose from the scene. A bomb disposal unit was on the scene and vehicles were being cordoned off for fear that they contained explosives.
Somalia-based armed group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack that came a day after trial began in deadly Westgate mall attack case that left 67 people dead.
“We are currently conducting an operation in Nairobi,” the group’s military operations spokesman told Al Jazeera.
The incidence comes exactly 3 years from the Mysterious deadly attack by Islamist militants on an African Union (AU) base in Somalia in 2016.
Residents of the south-western el-Ade town were the first to break the news, saying al-Shabab fighters arrived at dawn.
The raid began with an explosion by a suicide car bomber at the gates of the base after which dozens of gunmen followed, shooting as they went.
Eyewitnesses said dozens of Kenyan soldiers were killed while others ran away into the bush.
But this was not the version of events that was given by the Kenyan military.
The base on the outskirts of town is made up of two military camps – one housing the Somalia national army and the other for a contingent of Kenyan troops.
A few hours after the attack began, Col David Obonyo, the Kenya’s defence force spokesman, insisted it was the Somali camp that had been hit – and that Kenyan troops had rushed to its defence.
However, a Somali government official disputed this and told the BBC that it was actually the Kenyan-manned section that was raided.
In the days since the attack, there have been no reports of Somali military casualties and no indication that Somali soldiers were even present at the time of the attack.
Kenya’s Chief of Defence Forces General Samson Mwathethe now says the attackers used three powerful car bombs at the entrances to the two adjacent camps.
A Somali general has told the BBC the Kenyan military had been warned of an impending al-Shabab attack. General Abas Ibrahim Gurey told the BBC “clear and reliable intelligence” had been passed on 45 days before the jihadist fighters struck.
Al-Shabab has always insisted that the Kenyans were their target, and claimed to have taken “complete control” of the camp and seized weapons and vehicles.
El-Ade residents said the fighters had hoisted their flags in the Kenyan section and were parading the bodies of the dead Kenyans, sending out media statements that 60 soldiers had been killed.
However, an official figure for those killed is still not known. The military is still investigating the incident and says it will even require DNA testing to identify the bodies of the Kenyan soldiers.
Kenya contributes about 4,000 troops to the 22,000-strong AU force in Somalia
On Sunday, four injured Kenyan soldiers were airlifted to Nairobi for medical treatment, followed by another 16, who Col Obonyo said were mostly suffering from trauma.
Defence Minister Raychelle Omamo gave the first lead regarding numbers on Monday, saying the group affected by the attack was a “company-sized force”, which could be anything between 80 and 250 men.
By then al-Shabab was saying it had killed 100 Kenyans.
Security officers have been deployed to Westlands in Nairobi after gunshots heard in the area around Dusit Hotel.
Police say a team from the General Service Unit has been dispatched.
The militant group, linked to al-Qaeda, said its figures had gone up as its fighters had pursued some of the soldiers who fled.
A Somali official said that 13 Kenyan soldiers who had escaped during the raid had shown up in another town in the south-western Gedo region.
The men were said to have arrived on foot and appeared traumatised.
The official said they were in safe hands and would be handed over to the Kenyan contingent of the AU’s military mission.
In response to the attack, Kenyan military planes are said have bombed in Gedo, although it is not clear who or what they are targeting.
Kenya’s military chief General Samson Mwathethe said it was a delicate operation as al-Shabab was using the captured Kenyan soldiers as human shields.