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Gunmen stormed a shopping mall in Nairobi on Saturday killing at least 20 people in what Kenya's government said could be a terrorist attack, and sending scores fleeing into shops, a cinema and onto the streets in search of safety.

Sporadic gun shots could be heard hours after the assault started as soldiers surrounded the mall and police and soldiers combed the building, hunting down the attackers shop by shop. Some local television stations reported hostages had been taken, but there was no official confirmation.

Police helicopters circled above the mall as armed police shouted "get out! get out!" and scores of shoppers fled the building. Smoke poured out of one of the mall's entrances and witnesses said they heard grenade blasts.

Others said they saw about five armed assailants storm the beige stone Westgate shopping mall.

Kenya's interior ministry described the incident as a possible "attack by terrorists".

At least two dozen wounded were wheeled out on stretchers and shopping trolleys. Many of the victims had multiple light wounds, apparently from flying debris. Others walked out, some with bloodied clothing wrapped around wounds.

Reuters correspondents saw at least 20 bodies in two different locations.

The Somali militant group al Shabaab, which Kenya blames for shootings, bombings and grenade attacks against churches and the security forces, had threatened before to strike the Westgate mall, popular with the city's expatriate community. The chain of attacks follows action by Kenyan forces against al Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia two years ago.

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