Israeli forces have joined Kenyan efforts to end a deadly siege by Somali militants at a Nairobi shopping mall, a security source told AFP Sunday.
"The Israelis have just entered and they are rescuing the hostages and the injured," the source told AFP on condition he not be named.
Multiple barrages of gunfire erupted Sunday morning from the upscale Kenyan mall where there is a hostage standoff with Islamic extremists nearly 24 hours after they attacked using grenades and assault rifles.
Two wounded Kenyan security forces were carried out of the Westgate shopping mall after a sustained volley of gunfire that may have included grenade blasts.
Kenyan authorities said the terrorists held an unknown number of hostages in the shopping center located in the Westlands area of Nairobi, but various media outlets on Sunday estimated the number of hostages to be around 30. Kenya's Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Lenku says at least 59 people were killed and 175 wounded in the attack.
Lenku said Sunday that about 1,000 people have been rescued so far from Westgate Mall.
Somalia's al-Qaida-linked rebel group, al-Shabab, claimed responsibility for the attack in which they specifically targeted non-Muslims. Al-Shabab said on its Twitter feed that Kenyan security officials were trying to open negotiations. "There will be no negotiations whatsoever," al-Shabab tweeted.
Also on its Twitter feed, al-Shabab said that it has many times warned Kenya's government that failure to remove its forces from Somalia "would have severe consequences." The group claimed that its gunmen had killed 100 people, but its assertions are often exaggerated.
"The attack at #WestgateMall is just a very tiny fraction of what Muslims in Somalia experience at the hands of Kenyan invaders," al-Shabab said. Another tweet said: "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 #Westgate."
Al-Shabab's Twitter account was suspended shortly after its claim of responsibility and threats against Kenya. Twitter's terms of service forbids making threats. Al-Shabab threatened in late 2011 to unleash a large-scale attack in Nairobi. Kenya has seen a regular spate of grenade attacks since then but never such a large terrorist assault.
Kenyans and foreigners were among those confirmed dead, including French and Canadians. Kenya's presidential office said that one of the attackers was arrested on Saturday and died after suffering from bullet wounds.
"Violent extremists continue to occupy Westgate Mall. Security services are there in full force," said the United States embassy in an emergency text message issued Sunday morning.
Trucks brought in a fresh contingent of soldiers from the Kenya Defense Forces early Sunday to back the combined military and police force that surrounded the upscale mall overnight.
Daylight brought some good news, as Kenyan media reported that several people in hiding in the mall escaped to safety, suggesting that not everyone who is still inside is being held by al-Shabab.
Cecile Ndwiga said she had been hiding under a car in the basement parking garage.
"I called my husband to ask the soldiers to come and rescue me. Because I couldn't just walk out anyhow. The shootout was all over here -- left, right -- just gun shots," she said.
Nairobi resident Paolo Abenavoli said he is holed up in his apartment only 100 meters from the mall with a direct view of the entrance. He said he could see a dozen or more security forces inside a first floor restaurant.
"The battle is on now," Abenavoli told The Associated Press by telephone as the fresh gunfire broke out Sunday.
Security forces had pushed curious crowds far back from the mall. Hundreds of residents gathered on a high ridge above the mall to watch for any activity.
Witnesses said at least five gunmen -- including at least one woman -- first attacked an outdoor cafe at Nairobi's Westgate Mall, a shiny, new shopping center that includes Nike, Adidas and Bose stores. The mall's ownership is Israeli, and security experts have long said the structure made an attractive terrorist target.
The attack began shortly after noon with bursts of gunfire and grenades. Shoppers -- expatriates and affluent Kenyans -- fled in any direction that might be safe: into back corners of stores, back service hallways and bank vaults. Over the next several hours, pockets of people trickled out of the mall as undercover police moved in. Some of the wounded were trundled out in shopping carts.
"We started by hearing gunshots downstairs and outside. Later we heard them come inside. We took cover. Then we saw two gunmen wearing black turbans. I saw them shoot," said Patrick Kuria, an employee at Artcaffe, the restaurant with shady outdoor seating.
Frank Mugungu, an off-duty army sergeant major, said he saw four male attackers and one female attacker. "One was Somali," he said, adding that the others were black, suggesting that they could have been Kenyan or another nationality.
Nairobi's mortuary superintendent, Sammy Nyongesa Jacob, said Africans, Asians and Caucasians were among the bodies brought to the mortuary.
The U.S. State Department condemned "this senseless act of violence that has resulted in death and injury for many innocent men, women, and children."
In a separate statement, a White House spokeswoman said some staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya have been "tragically affected" by the attack. No other information was provided.
"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," Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said in the statement.
The U.S. embassy in Nairobi said it was in contact with local authorities and offered assistance. Some British security personnel assisted in the response.
The gunmen told hostages that non-Muslims would be targeted, said Elijah Kamau, who was at the mall at the time of the midday attack.
"The gunmen told Muslims to stand up and leave. They were safe, and non-Muslims would be targeted," he said.
Jay Patel, who sought cover on an upper floor in the mall when shooting began, said that when he looked out of a window onto the upper parking deck of the mall he saw the gunmen with a group of people. Patel said that as the attackers were talking, some of the people stood up and left and the others were shot.
The attack was carried out by terrorists, said police chief Benson Kibue. He did not specify a group. He said it was likely that no more than 10 attackers were involved.
Somalia's president -- the leader of a neighboring country familiar with terrorist attacks -- said his nation knows "only too well the human costs of violence like this" as he extended prayers to those in Kenya.
"These heartless acts against defenseless civilians, including innocent children, are beyond the pale and cannot be tolerated. We stand shoulder to shoulder with Kenya in its time of grief for these lives lost and the many injured," President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said.
The gunmen carried AK-47s and wore vests with hand grenades on them, said Manish Turohit, 18, who hid in a parking garage for two hours.
"They just came in and threw a grenade. We were running and they opened fire. They were shouting and firing," he said after marching out of the mall in a line of 15 people who all held their hands in the air.
The U.N. secretary-general's office said that Ban Ki-moon has spoken with President Uhuru Kenyatta and expressed his concern. British Prime Minister David Cameron also called Kenyatta and offered assistance. The U.N. Security Council condemned "in the strongest possible terms today's terrorist attack in Nairobi."