Minister tells media they have rescued a number of hostages and killed two terrorists today, and that all the militants are men – though some dressed as women
Somalilandsun – A column of black smoke rose from the roof of Nairobi’s Westgate mall after a series of massive blasts rocked the scene of a three-day hostage siege in the Kenyan capital.
Authorities said that two of a suspected team of at least a dozen militants had been killed.
Shortly after midday local time Kenyan soldiers in full combat gear flooded the streets around the upmarket shopping centre which has been occupied by Islamist militants from al-Shabaab and an unknown number of hostages since Saturday lunchtime.
After four large blasts rocked the Westgate Mall on Monday, Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku said that the two militants died from “our morning activities”.
Repeated attempts by security services working with Israeli and US military advisors to try and bring an end to the three-day standoff have so far failed to retrieve the remaining hostages.
It was unclear whether the explosions were detonated by the militants holed up inside the mall or whether they came from security services trying to blast their way in. One eye witness reported seeing Kenyan forces firing rocket propelled grenades into Westgate.
An armoured personnel carrier pulled into an access road nearby and more troops have since gathered, with a further assault expected soon.
Large crowds of curious onlookers who have gathered at dawn each day to watch the drama unfold were driven back violently by Kenyan police who fired warning shots into the air and used volleys of tear gas. As gunshots rang out around the mall during the military operation, panicked crowds scattered and a handful of angry stone throwers confronted police just a few streets away.
Authorities called this morning’s efforts a “final assault”, and following the most intense stage of the operation yet the Kenyan Police’s official Twitter feed reported it had made gains, saying: “Thumbs up to our multi-agency team, we have just managed to rescue some hostages. We’re increasingly gaining advantage of the attackers.”
Speaking at a press conference, Interior Minister Joseph Lenku confirmed two terrorists had been killed, and added that they believed the black smoke currently visible was caused by the militants burning mattresses.
Mr Lenku also said that all the terrorists were men, although some were dressed as women.
A tweet from the official Interior Ministry social media profile, which has been covering the crisis almost non-stop throughout, said that 10 officers had been injured in the operation today.
Heavy, sustained gunfire began as dawn broke this morning at the shopping centre, accompanied by at least two large explosions.
Commando teams were seen entering the huge four-storey building at around twilight on Sunday to begin attempts to end the siege, which the Kenyan Red Cross said has now claimed the lives of at least 69 people.
The ministry’s own official toll has fluctuated today, but currently stands at 62, with at least 175 people injured.
The dead include four Britons, according to the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond.
One of those victims was named this morning as British-Australian architect Ross Langdon, who died alongside his pregnant wife Elif Yavuz.
The Kenyan Defence Forces said earlier that a major military operation had secured the majority of the building and that “most of the hostages” inside the shopping centre had been rescued.
This morning the country’s Interior Ministry tweeted to ask people to “keep away from Westgate as the security agencies do all that must be done to end the siege”.
Prime Minister David Cameron said he was cutting short a trip to Balmoral to return to Downing Street and chair a meeting of COBRA, the Government’s crisis response committee.
Mr Cameron offered “every assistance” in a call to Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, whose nephew was killed in the attack, and it is reported that British anti-terror units are in Nairobi helping on the peripheries of the rescue operation.
Judges at the International Criminal Court have also responded quickly to the ongoing situation, adjourning the case of Kenyan deputy president William Ruto for one week so that he can return home to provide assistance. He stands charged of crimes against humanity in relation to violence after the 2007 elections.
Military helicopters have circled the commercial district of Westlands all day, where building sites and new office blocks have in recent years sprung up among the flower stalls and squatter camps. A roof landing was attempted. Soon after, the National Disaster Operation Centre posted the following message on Twitter: “Godspeed to our guys in the Westgate building. Major engagement ongoing. Sporadic gunfire.”
Ambulances were seen leaving the scene about two hours after a loud blast emanated at sunset from the siege which could be heard more than a kilometre away. Trucks partially covered with blankets were reported on one exit road, raising fears that more fatalities have been suffered during attempts to overwhelm the militants.
The cosmopolitan nature of the attackers’ target was reflected in the international death toll. The mall was frequented by UN staff from the nearby headquarters in Gigiri, as well as the wealthy local élite, foreign diplomats and expat workers. Among the dead were French, Canadian, Dutch, Indian, Ghanaian, American and Chinese citizens.
A Twitter account, linked to al-Shabaab, which claimed responsibility for the attack, posted the names of 10 people it said were among the attackers inside the shopping centre. The list included three Americans, one Finn and a 24-year-old from London.
The account was subsequently suspended, and a while a Foreign Office source said they “could not rule out” the claims, others questioned the veracity of the social media profile.
Nonetheless, today a top military official said he believed the attackers are “a multinational collection from all over the world”.
Kenya Chief of Defence forces General Julius Karangi said: “We have an idea who this people are and they are clearly a multinational collection from all over the world.”
The Somali Islamist group claimed responsibility for the attack on its Twitter feed on Saturday, posting: “The attack at #WestgateMall is just a very tiny fraction of what Muslims in Somalia experience at the hands of Kenyan invaders.” It continued: “For long we have waged war against the Kenyans in our land, now it’s time to shift the battleground and take the war to their land.” The account was suspended soon after.
No negotiationshave taken place with the attackers, and a spokesman for the group said in a clip posted on www.somalimemo.net this morning: “Israelis
and Kenyan forces have tried to enter Westgate (mall) by force but they could not, the mujahideen (fighters) will kill the hostages if the enemies use force.”
Security advisors from Jerusalem are understood to be assisting with the effort to reclaim control of the Israeli-owned shopping centre.
Eyewitness reports originally suggested one of the terrorists was a woman who had reportedly barked orders at people during the killing spree on Saturday, telling Muslims to identify themselves and leave.
Some non-Muslims who attempted to talk their way past the fighters armed with grenades and AK-47s were asked to identify the mother of the Prophet. Those who could not were shot on the spot.
Mr Lenku told reporters that no demands had been made and no negotiations had been entered into with the attackers. While many Kenyans have been braced for a terror attack since the country’s armed forces were sent across the border into Somalia in 2011, few had been prepared for loss of life on this sca
As the shock of Saturday passed there was an unprecedented turnout at blood banks set up by the Kenyan Red Cross. Queues stretched around entire blocks as many people waited in the hot sun for hours to give blood.
A Red Cross official said that donor centres had been overwhelmed by the scale of the response. “We never expected such a turnout,” he said. Many of the donors were surprised to find that Kenya’s usually aggressive minibus touts were giving discounts or free travel to people going to donate blood.
Kenya’s President, who will soon face trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), said that his country was united and would be “strong in adversity”.