The al-Shabab Islamist militants said on Tuesday they were still holding people hostage as Kenya’s troops battledfor a fourth day to end the terror attack at a Nairobi shopping centre.
Sporadic gunfire at the upmarket Westgate mall broke out again at dawn, hours after officials claimed Kenya’s troops had wrested back “control” of the sprawling complex from Somalia’s al-Shabab insurgents, who are said to include Americans and a British woman.
At least 62 shoppers and staff have been killed and close to 200 wounded in the siege, but concerns are high that the toll may yet rise, with the al-Shabab boasting about “countless number of dead bodies still scattered inside the mall”. The fate of 63 people listed as missing remains unclear.
“The hostages who were being held by the mujahedeen inside Westgate are still alive, looking quite disconcerted but, nevertheless, alive,” the al-Shabab said on their latest Twitter account.
However, Kenyan officials have said all the hostages are believed to have been freed, with the interior ministry saying on Tuesday that the assault was “very near the end”.
Security sources said “one or two” militants were barricaded in or around a casino on one of the upper floors of the complex.
Grenades and weapons
Al-Shabab fighters stormed the crowded mall at midday on Saturday, tossing grenades, firing automatic weapons and sending panicked shoppers fleeing. Government spokesperson Manoah Esipisu told Agence France-Presse that special forces were “sanitising” the complex in case “there are a couple of them hiding in a remote room or corner”.
“We think that everyone, the hostages, have been evacuated,” Esipisu said, with security sources saying those freed were taken to a military hospital. Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed said several American nationals and a British woman dubbed by the media as the “White Widow” were among the fighters.
Special forces on Monday killed at least three gunmen and wounded several in bitter fighting in the part Israeli-owned complex, which was popular with wealthy Kenyans and expatriates.
At least 11 Kenyan soldiers were wounded in the intense gun battles. A Kenyan security source and a Western intelligence official said Israeli forces were also involved in operations, along with British and US agents. Kenyan army chief Julius Karangi said the attackers were from “different countries”. Many foreign fighters, including Somalis with dual nationalities, are members of the al-Shabab force.
In an interview with US public broadcaster PBS, Kenya’s foreign minister said Americans and a British woman were among the attackers. “The Americans, from the information we have, are young men, about between maybe 18 and 19,” Mohamed said.
Asked if the Briton was a woman, she replied: “Woman. And she has, I think, done this many times before.”
They ‘dressed like women’
Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku had said earlier that all the attackers were men but noting “some of them had dressed like women”. Britain’s Home Secretary Theresa May said she was aware of the reports, adding: “But until we can see the investigation is completed it is not possible to give further details or to confirm or deny that issue.”
There is growing media speculation at the role of wanted British extremist Samantha Lewthwaite, daughter of a British soldier and widow of suicide bomber Germaine Lindsay, who blew himself up on a London Underground train on July 7 2005, killing 26 people.
Lewthwaite is wanted in Kenya, and is accused of links to al-Shabab. Police said they had also arrested more than 10 people for questioning. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, whose nephew was killed along with his fiancée, has called the attack “despicable and beastly”.
Al-Shabab spokesperson Ali Mohamud Rage has said the carnage was in retaliation for Nairobi’s two-year battle against the extremists bases in southern Somalia, warning that Kenya will not be at peace “as long as your boys are in our lands”. Shocked witnesses said the attackers tried to weed out non-Muslims for execution by demanding they recite the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith.
The dead include six Britons including a British-Australian, two French women, two Canadians including a diplomat, a Chinese woman, two Indians, a South Korean, a South African and a Dutch woman, according to their governments. Also killed was Ghanaian poet and former UN envoy Kofi Awoonor.
“The people who did this, they are vigilantes, they are animals,” British businessperson Louis Bawa, whose eight-year old daughter and wife were killed, told the Daily Telegraph.
Security camera footage seen by Kenyan media showed gunmen calming firing a barrage of bullets as they moved through the mall.
Away from Westgate, Nairobi on Tuesday appeared to have returned to largely business as usual, but the attacks have shocked Kenyans deeply.
Blood donor appeals ended after banks filled with donations from hundreds, while almost $600 000 (€435 000) has been raised to support the families affected.
Meanwhile, in Kenya’s port city Mombasa, security was tight for the latest hearing in the long running trial of suspected British Islamist militant Jermaine Grant on explosives charges.
Israeli interests in Kenya have come under attack before, and the Westgate mall – popular with well-to-do Kenyans, diplomats, UN workers and other expatriates – has long been seen as a potential target.
The siege, which has revived memories of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, is the worst attack in Nairobi since an al-Qaeda bombing at the US embassy killed more than 200 people in 1998.
US President Barack Obama has called Kenyatta offering “whatever law enforcement support that is necessary”, while UN chief Ban Ki-moon said the violence was “totally reprehensible”. – AFP