Friday, December 13, 2013
By Jason Straziuso and Tom Odula / The Associated Press
(Continued from page 1)
A Kenya Army helicopter flies behind a plume of black smoke billowing from the Westgate Mall, following large explosions and heavy gunfire, in Nairobi, Kenya Monday, Sept. 23, 2013. Four large blasts rocked Kenya's Westgate Mall on Monday, sending large plumes of smoke over an upscale suburb as Kenyan military forces sought to rescue an unknown number of hostages held by al-Qaida-linked militants. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
Heavy smoke rises from the Westgate Mall after a series of explosions, in Nairobi, Kenya, on Monday.
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.
Britain's foreign office said it was aware of the foreign minister's remarks, but would not confirm if a British woman was involved.
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."
Kenyan government spokesman Manoah Esipisu said the country's president would make an address to the nation later in the day but said he could give no immediate details on the operation.
Kenyan security officials on Monday evening said they had claimed the upper hand as flames and dark plumes of smoke rose above the Westgate shopping complex for more than an hour after four large explosions.
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.
Al-Shabab spokesman Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage said in an audio recording 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.
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."
Some 12 to 15 al-Shabab militants attacked Saturday, 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.
The attack at the Westgate mall in Nairobi's Westlands neighborhood 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.
click image to enlarge
Kenya security personnel take cover outside the Westgate Mall after shooting started inside the mall early Monday morning. Kenya's military launched a major operation at the upscale Nairobi mall and said it had rescued "most" of the hostages being held captive by al-Qaida-linked militants during the standoff that killed at least 68 people and injured 175.