WASHINGTON – Just a day after Muslim terrorists stormed a shopping mall in Kenya, killing at least 68, the Taliban is suspected of orchestrating a suicide bomb attack on an historic church in Pakistan, killing at least 78.
Hundreds more were injured in the attacks that began midday yesterday in Nairobi, Kenya.
The latest attack this morning in Peshawar, Pakistan, occurred as hundreds of worshipers were coming out of the church in the city’s Kohati Gate district after services to get a free meal of rice offered on the front lawn, said a top government administrator, Sahibzada Anees.
“There were blasts and there was hell for all of us,” Nazir John, who was at the church with at least 400 other worshipers, told the Associated Press. “When I got my senses back, I found nothing but smoke, dust, blood and screaming people. I saw severed body parts and blood all around.”
Blood stained the floors and white walls of the All Saints Church in the worst church attack in the country’s history. The floor was littered with bodies and plates of rice.
The suicide bombers detonated their explosives almost simultaneously, said police. Authorities were recovering body parts in a grisly effort to identify the victims and their ages.
The blasts killed more than 60 people and wounded 120, said Arshad Javed, top health official at the hospital in Peshawar where the victims were being treated. The dead included several women and children, said Sher Ali Khan, another doctor at the hospital.
The hospital ran out of caskets and beds for the wounded.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.
“This is the deadliest attack against Christians in our country,” said Irfan Jamil, bishop of the eastern city of Lahore.
Meanwhile, Kenyan’s military said late Sunday it had rescued “most” of the remaining hostages held by al-Qaida-linked militants in an upscale Nairobi mall after launching a major operation to end a two-day standoff that had already killed 68 people.
Kenyan police said on Twitter that a “MAJOR” assault by had started to end the bloody siege.
“This will end tonight. Our forces will prevail. Kenyans are standing firm against aggression, and we will win,” Kenya’s National Disaster Operation Centre said on Twitter.
About 293 civilians have already been treated for injuries, but authorities are running out of blood for transfusions. The wounded range in age from 2 to 78, according to police.
Somalia’s al-Qaida-linked rebel group, al-Shabab, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that it was in retaliation for the 2011 involvement of Kenyan forces in their country to fight the Islamic insurgents.
“They’re seeking to embarrass Kenya and get them to withdraw their troops,” Associated Press reporter Jason Straziuso, who is currently in Nairobi, told ABC News.”These hardcore terrorists know that this generates news in Europe and America.”
Al-Shabab has previously recruited dozens of Americans to join their cause.
U.S. officials estimate that as many as 50 Americans have traveled to training camps in Somalia, the home of the terror group, over the last six years.
Just last month, the group released a video showing three young men claiming to be from Minneapolis who the terror group said later died as martyrs.
“This is the best place to be honestly,” one of the men says. “I can only tell you from my experience being here, that you have the best of dreams, you eat the best of food, and you’re with the best of the brothers and sisters who came here for the sake of Allah. If you guys only knew how much fun we have over here. This is the real Disneyland, you need to come here and join us and take pleasure in this fun.”
The U.S. State Department has confirmed four Americans were among the wounded in the Kenya attack. It condemned “this senseless act of violence that has resulted in death and injury for many innocent men, women, and children.”
Reuters reports the list of foreigners killed includes two French nationals, two Canadians, three Britons, a Chinese woman, a Dutch woman and Ghanaian diplomat and poet Kofi Awoonor. The wife of a U.S. diplomat working for the U.S. Agency for International Development was also killed.
The U.S. embassy said it was in contact with local authorities and offered assistance. Some British security personnel assisted in the response.
“The United States condemns in the strongest terms the despicable terrorist attack on innocent civilians today at the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya,” a National Security Council spokesman said in a statement.
“We extend our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of those who have been killed or injured, including the American citizens who were injured and the staff of our Embassy in Kenya who were tragically affected by this attack. We also commend the courageous response by Kenyan security personnel and first responders, including the Kenyan Red Cross, who stepped forward to help their fellow citizens,” the statement said.
“The perpetrators of this heinous act must be brought to justice, and we have offered our full support to the Kenyan Government to do so. We will continue to stand with the Kenyan people in their efforts to confront terrorism in all its forms, including the threat posed by al-Shabaab. This cowardly act against innocent civilians will not shake our resolve,” the statement said.
Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, blasted “the despicable perpetrators of this cowardly act (who) hoped to intimidate, divide and cause despondency among Kenyans and would like to (create) a closed, fearful and fractured society.”
“Westgate Mall lends itself a serene and safe environment away from the city centre,” the mall’s official website states. The mall has more than 80 stories and restaurants.
The attack began at noon Saturday.
“They had grenades, and it was really, really loud,” one eyewitness told CNN, adding that he noticed tear gas in the corridors as well. “All of us felt like they were close.”
As people texted family and friends outside the mall, word spread that nobody could be trusted – and, even if the good guys could be sorted from the bad guys, the barrage of intermittent gunfire made any escape seem futile at times.
Sara Head, a Washington resident, experienced much of the same horror in the mall’s parking garage, CNN reported. As her car pulled up, she and others heard the rattle of gunfire – prompting them to crawl underneath and sneak behind cars before getting into a stairwell. She had company, including two people bleeding from gunshot wounds.
The military asked local media not to televise anything live because the gunmen are watching the screens in the mall, which is popular with expatriates and the wealthy.
The attackers were in black and wearing facemasks and vests loaded with grenades. They sprayed the unsuspecting crowds with bullets from AK-47s.
At one point mall guards used shopping carts to wheel out wounded children.
“The despicable perpetrators of this cowardly act hope to intimidate, divide and cause despondency amongst Kenyans,” Kenyatta said. “We have overcome terrorist attacks before. In fact we have fought courageously and defeated them within and outside our borders. We will defeat them again.”
Shabab, the al-Qaida-affiliated Somali militant group claiming responsibility for the mall attack, has been implicated in a string of attacks in Kenya in recent years.
The group has been issuing threats against Kenya since the country sent troops into southern Somalia in 2011 and helped drive the militants out of the port city of Kismayo, once a key source of Shabab’s revenue. Kenya still has troops in Somalia operating under the banner of the African Union.
The Shabab media office said the attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall was “retributive justice” for Kenya’s actions in Somalia.
“For long we have waged war against the Kenyans in our land, now it’s time to shift the battleground and take the war to their land,” the group said.
According to a U.S. official, eight to 12 gunmen may have initiated their attack by dropping grenades from a second floor balcony of the Westgate Mall before opening fire.
There were 30 American citizens, including embassy personnel, in the mall at the time of the attack, but they have all been evacuated and are accounted for, the official said.
Four Americans have been reported injured and were at a local hospital, the official said.
“The gunmen told Muslims to stand up and leave. They were safe, and non-Muslims would be targeted,” said witness Elijah Kamau who was shopping in the mall.
The Westgate Mall is a destination for Kenya’s elite. It bills itself as the city’s premier mall, boasting that it offers customers a “first world interior” and a “safe and serene environment.” It was opened in 2007.
Bruce Hoffman, who authored a study at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, said in a report three years ago that al-Qaida continues to be a threat because of its networking ability. Hoffman added that attrition is part of al-Qaida’s strategy, which is where diversifying the targets comes into play.
“Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan-born U.S. resident [was] arrested in New York last September and charged with plotting a ‘Mumbai on the Hudson’ suicide terrorist operation. But while al-Qaida is finding new ways to exploit our weaknesses, we are stuck in a pattern of belated responses, rather than anticipating its moves and developing preemptive strategies,” the report said.