Kenya forces say mall battle in final stages
NAIROBI, Kenya – Kenyan troops battled late into Sunday night, September 22, in a bid to end a terrifying stand-off with Somali militants holding hostages inside a shopping mall, with police warning the death toll of 68 could rise sharply.
The army said it had managed to secure most of the upmarket, part Israeli-owned Westgate complex, and that most of the hostages had been rescued. It said it was trying to bring the 36-hour-long bloodbath to a "speedy conclusion."
Security and intelligence sources told Agence France-Presse that Israeli agents were also assisting in the operation, and Kenya's National Disaster Operation Centre said a "major engagement" with the Al Qaeda-linked Shebab fighters was in process.
"Our concern is to rescue all hostages alive and that is why the operation is delicate," the Kenya Defence Forces said in a situation update.
"All efforts are underway to bring this matter to a speedy conclusion," it said, adding four of its soldiers were wounded in what appeared to be a final battle to secure the mall, which is popular with wealthy Kenyans and expatriates.
"The criminals are now all located in one place within the building... We have as good a chance to successfully neutralize the terrorists as we can hope for," Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a speech to the nation.
"They shall not get away with their despicable and beastly acts," Kenyatta said in an emotional speech, in which he announced he had lost a nephew and his fiancee in the attack. "We will punish the masterminds swiftly, and indeed very painfully."
Kenyatta said he had received "numerous offers of assistance from friendly countries" but that for now it remained a Kenyan operation.
However, a Kenyan security source confirmed that Israelis "are rescuing the hostages and the injured". The Israeli foreign ministry refused to confirm or deny its agents were involved.
Terrified witnesses recounted scenes of horror as the masked gunmen tossed grenades and sprayed automatic gunfire in the packed centre in a brazen attack around midday on Saturday, sending panicked shoppers fleeing.
Officials estimated some 200 people have been wounded, and the Red Cross made a nationwide appeal for blood donors.
But police sources who had entered the building on Sunday evening said they feared that death toll, now confirmed at 68, "could be much, much higher... judging from the bodies sighted inside" that have yet to be recovered.
Somalia's Shebab rebels said the carnage was in retaliation for Kenya's military intervention in Somalia, where African Union troops are battling the Islamists.
"If you want Kenya in peace, it will not happen as long as your boys are in our lands," Shebab spokesman Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage said in a statement.
The group also issued a string of statements via Twitter, one of them claiming that Muslims in the center had been "escorted out by the Mujahideen before beginning the attack".
More than 1,000 people have been rescued, but between 10 to 15 attackers are holding out in the multi-story complex "as well as many unarmed, badly shaken, innocent civilians", Kenyatta said.
The dead also included three Britons, 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, 78, while his son was injured.
'People sprayed with bullets'
The attack, the worst in Nairobi since an Al-Qaeda bombing at the US embassy killed more than 200 people in 1998, was condemned by world powers.
US President Barack Obama called Kenyatta offering support "to bring the perpetrators of the attack to justice", while UN chief Ban Ki-moon said the violence was "totally reprehensible".
Kenya's Vice President William Ruto has asked the International Criminal Court to delay his trial for crimes against humanity over deadly 2007-08 post-election violence because of the mall standoff, his lawyer said.
Mall worker Zipporah Wanjiru, who emerged from the ordeal alive but in a state of shock, said she hid under a table with five other colleagues.
"They were shooting indiscriminately, it was like a movie seeing people sprayed with bullets like that," she said, bursting into tears. "I have never witnessed this in my life. Only God can heal us and our country."
Cafe waiter Titus Alede, who risked his life and leapt from the first floor of the mall, said it was a "miracle from God" that he managed to escape the approaching gunmen.
"I remember them saying 'you killed our people in Somalia, it is our time to pay you back'," he said.
One teenage survivor told how he played dead to avoid being killed.
"I heard screams and gunshots all over the place. I got scared... (and) hid behind one of the cars," 18-year-old Umar Ahmed told Agence France-Presse.
In the hours after the attack began, shocked people of all ages and races could be seen running from the mall, some clutching babies, while others crawled along walls to avoid stray bullets.
As well as Kenyan troops, foreign security agents – from Israel as well as the United States and Britain – were also seen in the mall. An AFPTV reporter said she saw at least 20 people rescued from a toy shop, some of them children taken away on stretchers.
Israeli interests in Kenya have come under attack before.
In November 2002 there were two simultaneous attacks in the Mombasa area. A missile targeted an Israeli charter flight as it took off from the port city's airport, but missed.
At the same time a car packed with explosives smashed into the Israeli-owned Paradise hotel, killing 10 Kenyans and three Israelis. – Rappler.com