NAIROBI, Kenya — A blast that blew the roof off a downtown building and hurled shards of glass and burned clothing into the streets on Monday apparently was the strongest retaliation yet by al Qaida-linked forces in Somalia for Kenya’s military foray into that country.
The blast injured 28 people, but 21 of those had already been released from the hospital by evening. There were no deaths reported; the blast was not apparently a suicide bombing.
Kenya’s prime minister suggested the blame lay with Somalia’s Islamist rebels, known as al Shabab, which formally joined al Qaida earlier this year. Kenya declared war on Shabab last year and sent troops across the border to fight the militia group.
"Our enemies are going to try to continue every effort to try to scare us," Prime Minister Raila Odinga said to a crowd of onlookers at the bomb site. "We will not be scared. This is a heinous act. . . . Kenya will not surrender to terrorists."
The blast in one of Kenya’s busiest business streets was jarring, but the blast’s physical damage was more modest than the smoke billowing over the city’s skyline at first seemed to indicate.
The target of the blast was a one-story building squeezed in between two towering office buildings where rows of stalls offered footwear and second-hand clothing.
"There was a very big blast, then so much smoke and dust that you couldn’t see in front of you," said Irene Wanja, who was inside selling clothes at the time of the explosion.
At first officials suggested that the blast was the result of a electrical fault, but Kenya’s national power company struck down that claim, saying its inspection had found that electrical circuits were not to blame.
A doctor at the Kenyatta National Hospital, where the wounded were taken, said the arriving patients had shrapnel wounds. The doctor asked not to be identified because the hospital was refusing to release details of the injuries.
Kenya has been hit by several crude grenade attacks in the past several months, most of which have occurred in the country’s mostly Muslim east, near Somalia. Some speculated that the attack Monday involved another grenade. But there were also reports that a man who entered the building shortly before the blast left a backpack and walked out.
The explosion blew a man-sized hole through one side of the building and tore up the building’s corrugated metal roof. Besides the one hole, the exterior of the building appeared undamaged. The subsequent fire, however, destroyed the building’s contents.
Despite threats from Shabab to bring violence to the Kenyan capital, security has not noticeably increased here. There was no security check at the entrance to the indoor clothing bazaar, which is on a major pedestrian thoroughfare. Odinga, a leading presidential candidate in the country’s upcoming election, vowed to install security cameras throughout the city during his address to onlookers.
Kenya’s military push into Somalia remains the subject of debate in this country, where many analysts have suggested that it was poorly planned and likely to backfire. That debate continued outside the devastated bazaar on Monday.
"If the Kenya military comes out of there, we will look like cowards," said Situma Andrew, a 25-year-old who left his downtown office to come see the damage. "Let them finish them there."
"No no, it was not a smart decision ," interjected another young male, referring to the decision to send in the troops. Other bystanders quickly joined in, before the presence of police dogs brought in for crowd control sent the crowd running, ending the discussion.
Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Mohammed Yusuf contributed reporting. Boswell’s reporting is underwritten in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.