A Nordstrom Rack spokeswoman said 2 gunmen committed robbery before fleeing a mall near Los Angeles International Airport.

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LOS ANGELES — Employees were closing up at a mall-department store and preparing to go home late Thursday when two gunmen stormed inside and took them hostage.

The thugs stabbed one of the 14 Nordstrom Rack employees, sexually assaulted another and pistol-whipped a third before SWAT officers freed everyone early Friday, more than three hours after the ordeal began.

Hundreds of other people were stranded at the mall during the siege, most of them at a movie complex.

Nordstrom spokeswoman Tara Darrow said the gunmen committed a robbery before fleeing the store at the Promenade at Howard Hughes Center, near Los Angeles International Airport.

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Both gunmen remained at large Friday. Darrow declined to describe what was stolen.

The incident began about 11 p.m. Thursday, when a man reported that his girlfriend had called to say gunmen were in the store, Los Angeles police Lt. Andy Neiman said.

“She told him: ‘Call 911. Two guys with guns just came into our store,’ ” Neiman said.

Police officers and SWAT team members swarmed the outdoor-shopping center that also has restaurants and a theater. The officers saw a man leave the second-floor store but he ran back in, Neiman said.

Moments later, another man came out with a woman, but when he saw the police he grabbed her and pushed her back inside, Neiman said.

SWAT members surrounded the location but weren’t able to talk to anyone inside. They later rushed in. Officers found most of the hostages — 13 women and one man — locked in a storage room; two others were found hiding in a bathroom, police said.

The employee who was stabbed was treated and released at the scene, police said. The condition of the other two was not reported.

Other workers complained of minor injuries, likely because they had been manhandled or pushed by the assailants, Neiman said.

Police were checking to see if mall-surveillance cameras captured the robbers on video. Investigators also were interviewing the 14 who were held hostage to determine the chain of events.

“When you’re talking 14 victims, a sexual assault and a stabbing, it takes a while,” Neiman said.

Apparently the robbers escaped in a white Ford Explorer after officers arrived at the mall. The vehicle with tinted windows and headlights off peeled out of the parking garage. The driver wore a black hoodie and the passenger a white T-shirt, according to police-dispatch recordings.

Although police pursued the vehicle, they lost it.

Darrow said counseling services will be provided to employees. “Our priority right now is to take care of our employees,” she said.

The store will remain closed over the weekend to give employees time to recover, and counselors will be available when it reopens Monday.

Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.

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