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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Two gunmen invaded a Nordstrom Rack clothing store in California on Thursday night and took 14 employees captive, sexually assaulting one, stabbing another and locking the detainees in a storage room for hours, police said.
The gunmen were nowhere to be found by the time police entered the Los Angeles store shortly after 2 a.m. on Friday and rescued the employees.
The armed invasion at Nordstrom Rack at the Promenade at Howard Hughes Center on Thursday in the middle-class Westchester district of Los Angeles was treated as a robbery, said Los Angeles police spokesman Lieutenant Andy Neiman.
But it was unclear if the suspects absconded with any cash and police could not immediately say if they stormed the store or emerged from hiding after closing time.
The Promenade, located next to a major freeway, is an outdoor shopping center with restaurants, stores, a cinema and a glow-in-the-dark indoor mini-golf center.
Police became aware of the invasion after an employee at Nordstrom Rack called a loved one to ask him to report to police that two men armed with handguns were inside the store after closing time, which is 10 p.m. local time, Neiman said.
Officers who arrived at the scene about an hour after the store's closing time saw a man come out of the store and run back inside, police said. Shortly afterward, another man leaving the store with a woman also spotted officers and retreated as he forced her back inside.
Officers became concerned that hostages were being held in the store, and a police SWAT team was called.
The SWAT team entered the store shortly after 2 a.m. and found the employees, 13 women and a man. Most were locked inside a storage room in the rear of the store, and a couple of them were found in a bathroom, police said.
At the height of the police response, there were dozens of officers at the scene and it was unclear how the two suspects evaded police while fleeing the store.
"If the suspects are there when SWAT gets there, it's pretty unusual for them to get away," Neiman said. But he added that the mall is large with a lot of access points.
"It's possible that they eluded or exited the building prior to us establishing a complete perimeter," he said.
A white SUV was seen hurtling out of the shopping center at high speed when officers first arrived, and a similar vehicle was later found in the neighboring community of Culver City, police said.
Police were running the plates on the vehicle, which may have been used by accomplices of the two armed men who entered the store, or may have no connection to the crime, Neiman said.
Aside from the person who was sexually assaulted, another of the employees was stabbed, Los Angeles police spokeswoman Richard French said.
Both were treated and released after a SWAT team reached the employees, who officers had initially believed were being held hostage, he said. Police planned to release surveillance video from the shopping center in an attempt to find the suspects.
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Richard Chang