Civilians are evacuated from the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, after the government’s security forces launched an assault to free hostages taken in an attack by an al-Qaeda-linked Somali militia.
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NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenya said its security forces had taken control of the Nairobi shopping mall where Islamist fighters killed at least 62 people on Monday, but another explosion and more gunfire could be heard coming from the mall at around 6:30 a.m. local time on Tuesday, reporters at the scene said.
An overnight eerie silence outside the mall was broken at daybreak following a loud burst of gunfire heard coming from inside the Westgate mall, suggesting that the complex had not yet been secured. A lone military chopper circled above.
Security forces carried a body out of the mall, which remained on fire, with smoke and flames visible.
While the government announced Sunday that “most” hostages had been released, a security expert with contacts inside the mall said at least 10 were still being held by a band of attackers described as “a multinational collection from all over the world.”
Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed said “two or three Americans” and “one Brit” were among those who attacked the mall.
She said in an interview with the PBS “NewsHour” program that the Americans were 18 to 19 years old, of Somali or Arab origin and lived “in Minnesota and one other place” in the U.S. The attacker from Britain was a woman who has “done this many times before,” Mohamed said.
U.S. officials said they were looking into whether any Americans were involved. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that the department had “no definitive evidence of the nationalities or the identities” of the attackers.
The security expert, who insisted on anonymity to talk freely about the situation, said many hostages had been freed or escaped in the previous 24-36 hours, including some who were in hiding.
However, there were at least 30 hostages when the assault by al-Shabab militants began Saturday, he said, and “it’s clear” that Kenyan security officials “haven’t cleared the building fully.”
Somalia’s al-Qaida-linked rebel group, al-Shabab, which claimed responsibility for the attack, said the hostage-takers were well-armed and ready to take on the Kenyan forces.
Flames and dark plumes of smoke rose Monday above the Westgate shopping complex for more than an hour after four large explosions rocked the surrounding neighborhood. The smoke was pouring through a large skylight inside the mall’s main department and grocery store, where mattresses and other flammable goods appeared to have been set on fire, a person with knowledge of the rescue operation told The Associated Press.
Kenyan security personnel take their positions outside the Westgate Mall. Gunfire and explosions were heard during the fighting at the upscale shopping center.
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The explosions were followed by volleys of gunfire as police helicopters and a military jet circled overhead, giving the neighborhood the feel of a war zone.
By Monday evening, Kenyan security officials claimed the upper hand.
“Taken control of all the floors. We’re not here to feed the attackers with pastries but to finish and punish them,” Police Inspector General David Kimaiyo said on Twitter.
Kenya’s Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku said the evacuation of hostages had gone “very, very well” and that Kenyan officials were “very certain” that few if any hostages were left in the building.
But with the mall cordoned off and under heavy security it was not possible to independently verify the assertions. Similar claims of a quick resolution were made by Kenyan officials on Sunday and the siege continued. Authorities have also not provided any details on how many hostages were freed or how many still remain captive.
Three attackers were killed in the fighting Monday, Kenyan authorities said, and more than 10 suspects arrested. Eleven Kenyan soldiers were wounded in the running gun battles.
An al-Shabab spokesman, Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage, said in an audio file posted on a militant website that the attackers had been ordered to “take punitive action against the hostages” if force was used to try to rescue them.
The attackers have lots of ammunition, the militant group said in a Twitter feed, adding that Kenya’s government would be responsible for any loss of hostages’ lives.
A Western security official in Nairobi who insisted on not being named to share information about the rescue operation said the only reason the siege hadn’t yet ended would be because hostages were still inside.
Westgate mall, a vast complex with multiple banks that have secure vaults and bulletproof glass partitions, as well as a casino, is difficult to take, the official said. “They are not made for storming,” he said of the labyrinth of shops, restaurants and offices. “They’re made to be unstormable.”
At least 62 people were killed in the assault Saturday by some 12 to 15 al-Shabab militants wielding grenades and firing on civilians inside the mall, which includes shops for such retail giants as Nike, Adidas and Bose and is popular with foreigners and wealthy Kenyans.
The militants specifically targeted non-Muslims, and at least 18 foreigners were among the dead, including six Britons, as well as citizens from France, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Peru, India, Ghana, South Africa and China. Nearly 200 people were wounded, including five Americans.
Fighters from an array of nations participated in the assault, according to Kenya’s Chief of Defense forces Gen. Julius Karangi. “We have an idea who these people are and they are clearly a multinational collection from all over the world,” he said.
Al-Shabab, whose name means “The Youth” in Arabic, said the mall attack was in retribution for Kenyan forces’ 2011 push into neighboring Somalia. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya since the 1998 al-Qaida truck bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, which killed more than 200 people.
An extremist Islamic terrorist force that grew out of the anarchy that crippled Somalia after warlords ousted a longtime dictator in 1991, al-Shabab is estimated to have several thousand fighters, including a few hundred foreigners, among them militants from the Middle East with experience in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Others are young, raw recruits from Somali communities in the United States and Europe.
For years Minnesota has been the center of a federal investigation into the recruiting of fighters for al-Shabab. Authorities say about two dozen young men have left Minnesota since 2007 to join the group. Minnesota’s Somali community is the largest in the U.S.
Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said the attack showed that al-Shabab was a threat not just to Somalia but to the international community.
Mohamed, the Kenyan foreign minister, said her country needs to work with other governments to fight the increasing terrorist threat and “much more with the U.S and the U.K., because both the victims and the perpetrators came from Kenya, the United Kingdom and the United States.
“That just goes to underline the global nature of this war that we are fighting,” she said.
Reports that some of the attackers may have been Somalis who lived in the United States illustrate the global nature of the militant group, the Somali leader said in a speech at Ohio State University. “Today, there are clear evidences that Shabab is not a threat to Somalia and Somali people only,” he said. “They are a threat to the continent of Africa, and the world at large.”
As the crisis passed the 48-hour mark, a video emerged that was taken by someone inside the mall’s main department store when the assault began. It showed frightened and unsure shoppers crouching as long, loud volleys of gunfire could be heard.
Kenyans in many parts of the country stood in long lines Monday to donate blood to aid the nearly 200 people injured in the attack. Fundraisers raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, though government officials warned of scam artists taking advantage of the tragedy.
Patronised by well-to-do Kenyans and expatriates, Westgate mall epitomized the African consumer bonanza that is drawing foreign investment - from West and East - to one of the world's fastest growing regions.
Al Qaeda killed more than 200 people when it bombed the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. When fighters from its Somali ideological counterpart stormed the mall on Saturday, they hit a high-profile symbol of Kenya's economic power.
Obama, whose father was born in Kenya, said the United States stood with Kenyans against “this terrible outrage.”
“We will provide them with whatever law enforcement support that is necessary. And we are confident that Kenya will continue to be a pillar of stability in eastern Africa,” he said in New York.
Kenya has sent troops to Somalia as part of an African Union force trying to stabilise the country, which was long without a functioning government, and push back al Shabaab.
It has also suffered internal instability. President Uhuru Kenyatta, who lost a nephew in the weekend bloodbath, faces charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court for his alleged role in coordinating violence after disputed elections in 2007. He denies the charges.
Kenyatta has dismissed a demand that he pull Kenyan forces out of Somalia, saying he would not relent in a “war on terror.”
British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said he believed six Britons had died in the attack. Other known foreign victims are from China, Ghana, France, the Netherlands and Canada. Kenyan officials said the total death toll was at least 62.
Kenya believes there are also foreigners among the attackers, with military chief Julius Karangi saying they came from all over the world. “We are fighting global terrorism here,” he said, without giving their nationalities.
Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed said in a U.S. television interview that “two or three Americans” and a British woman were among the attackers.
She told the “PBS Newshour” show that the Americans were "young men, about between maybe 18 and 19” years old. “Of Somali origin or Arab origin, but that lived in the U.S., in Minnesota and one other place,” Mohamed said.
U.S. authorities are urgently looking into information given by the Kenyan government that residents of Western countries, including the United States, may have been among the attackers, U.S. security sources said.
White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said he had no direct information that Americans had participated in the attack, but expressed U.S. worries.
“We do monitor very carefully and have for some time been concerned about efforts by al Shabaab to recruit Americans or U.S. persons to come to Somalia,” Rhodes told reporters travelling with Obama to the United Nations in New York.
Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku said the militants had set fire to mattresses in a supermarket on the mall's lower floors and his ministry later said the blaze was under control. Two attackers were killed on Monday, taking the total of dead militants so far to three, he told a news conference.
Speculation rose about the identity of the attackers. Ole Lenku said they were all men but that some had dressed as women.
Despite his comments, one intelligence officer and two soldiers told Reuters that one of the dead militants was a white woman. This is likely to fuel speculation that she is the wanted widow of one of the suicide bombers who together killed more than 50 people on London's transport system in 2005.
Called the “white widow” by the British press, Samantha Lewthwaite is wanted in connection with an alleged plot to attack hotels and restaurants in Kenya. Asked if the dead woman was Lewthwaite, the intelligence officer said: “We don't know.”
A spokesman for al Shabaab warned they would kill hostages if Kenyan troops tried to storm their positions. “The mujahideen will kill the hostages if the enemies use force,” Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage said in an online audio statement.
From Mali to Algeria, Nigeria to Kenya, violent Islamist groups - tapping into local poverty, conflict, inequality or exclusion but espousing a similar anti-Western, anti-Christian creed - are striking at state authority and international interests, both economic and political.
John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, said he believed insurgents such as those who rebelled in Mali last year, the Nigerian Boko Haram Islamist sect and the Nairobi mall raiders were also partly motivated by anger with what he called "pervasive malgovernance” in Africa.
“This is undoubtedly anti-Western and anti-Christian but it also taps into a lot of deep popular anger against the political economy in which they find themselves, in which a very small group of people are basically raking off the wealth,” he said.