NAIROBI (Araweelo News Network) The bloody standoff at a Kenyan shopping mall entered its fourth day on Tuesday with no clear outcome as government forces claimed to be picking off the militants who stormed the upscale shopping center and seized hostages, while the attackers said they
were still resisting a government onslaught.
The Somalia-based Shabab militant group, which has taken responsibility for the attack, said in a message on a Twitter account linked with it that some hostages were still alive and that its fighters remained at large in the complex. The fighters, the Shabab said, were “still holding their ground.”
The rattle of automatic weapons fire continued intermittently throughout Tuesday morning, seeming to contradict accounts late Monday that the crisis was nearing an end after shooting tapered off and the Kenyan news media reported that all the militants had been killed.
“We’re in control of #Westgate,” Kenya’s Interior Ministry said in a Twitter message late Monday, referring to the large mall — an emblem of modernity and prosperity frequented by middle class Kenyans and foreigners — that Islamist militants stormed on Saturday, killing more than 60 people.
“We believe all hostages have been released,” the Kenya National Disaster Operation Center said in a Twitter message. “Special forces and KDF soldiers combing the building. Situation of hostiles to be confirmed.”
But on Tuesday, apparently confirming that fighting was continuing, Manoah Esipisu, a Kenyan government spokesman, said on his Twitter account that “One more terrorist of the Westgate siege has been gunned down, bringing the death toll of these terrorists to three.”
If only three terrorists have been killed that would likely leave a number of assailants at large, either inside or outside of the mall. Kenyan officials have said that between 10 and 15 were involved in the assault.
The confusion underscored the complexities and challenges facing the authorities before they can declare the emergency to be over. The number of possible hiding places in a shopping mall that covers 350,000 square feet with more than 80 stores is seemingly endless. The Nakumatt grocery store is something like a Wal-Mart, selling everything from mattresses to strollers to flat-screen televisions with boxes and crates to hide in.
Among the attackers were two or three young American men who appeared to be of Somali or Arab origin, Kenya’s foreign minister, Amina Mohamed, said Monday. In an interview on PBS, Ms. Mohamed said the American attackers were originally from Minnesota or Missouri. “That just goes to underline the global nature of the war that we’re fighting,” she said.
The State Department’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said: “We have no definitive evidence of the nationalities or identities of the perpetrators at this time. We will continue to look into these reports.”
Kenyan forces have struggled since Saturday to vanquish the militants, who, after killing shoppers, holed up in various corners of the Westgate mall with military-grade weaponry. Hundreds of elite Kenyan troops — backed by armored personnel carriers, helicopters, planes and security officials from Britain, France, Israel and the United States — have been deployed, but the militants have refused to surrender.
Kenyan officials have repeatedly tried to reassure the country — and the world — that they are bringing the crisis under control, mindful of the damage to the nation’s image as a cornerstone of stability in an often turbulent region.
“This will end tonight,” Kenyan officials had declared as a major rescue operation got under way on Sunday evening. But shortly thereafter, three Kenyan commandos were shot and killed at close range and several hostages were killed as Kenyan forces tried to move in on militants hiding in a dark corner of the mall, Western officials said.
Kenya is a crucial American partner, its security forces working closely with their Western counterparts to contain Islamist militants in the region. Now Kenya’s capital, considered an oasis of prosperity in this part of Africa and an important base for Western embassies and businesses, has become a battleground in the conflict, and there is growing concern that this attack will not be the last.
Several witnesses said that some of the ringleaders of the assault — in which masked gunmen moved methodically through the crowded mall on Saturday, killing men, women and children — may have escaped during the initial confusion. One witness said that an assailant quickly tore off his clothes and changed into a new outfit before running out, hands raised, blending in with a crowd of fleeing civilians.
Security officials in Nairobi said that two other militants — both women who appeared to be directing other assailants during the killings — also managed to escape after the initial stage of the attack, raising fears that well-trained terrorists could be on the loose in Nairobi. Several witnesses have said that some of the militants were clearly not African and may have been from Western countries.
Kenya’s security forces seem to have been ill-prepared for a complex hostage situation against die-hard militants like this. According to several Western officials, the Kenyans initially rebuffed offers of assistance from the American government and turned instead to the Israelis, who dispatched advisers from the Israeli Defense Forces. Those advisers have been working closely with the Kenyan commandos inside the mall, helping plan specific tactical operations, though officials said the Israeli advisers had not engaged in any combat and had stayed out of public view.
The American, French and British officials have been left with a more back-seat role from a command center just down the street from the Westgate mall, helping the Kenyans with the investigation of the attack and some intelligence matters, a high-ranking Kenyan official said Monday.
“There’s too much consultation going on,” said the Kenyan official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “This should have been a small rescue operation, not preparing for war.”
On Monday afternoon, Kenyan security officials acknowledged that the effort to end the standoff had taken longer than expected, though they offered a different account of their setbacks, saying that about 10 Kenyan soldiers had been injured but none killed.
The Shabab, a brutal Somali extremist group that had at least 20 fighters from the United States in 2010, many of them young Somali-Americans from a gritty part of Minneapolis, has said the attack was revenge for Kenya’s military incursion into Somalia, which began in 2011 when Kenya sent thousands of troops across the border to push back the Shabab.
Three years ago, the group also claimed credit for the coordinated bombings that killed more than 70 people in Uganda as crowds gathered to watch the World Cup, calling it retribution for Uganda’s decision to send troops to Somalia as part of the African Union’s effort to stabilize the country.
But the possible presence of militants from outside of Africa in the mall attack — and the way the assailants fended off attempts to dislodge them — has raised questions about the Shabab’s latest claims. Some Western security officials are beginning to wonder if other terrorist groups may be involved.
“This whole thing seems more advanced than anything the Shabab has ever done,” said one Western security official, who did not want to be identified because the operations were still continuing.
“They are clearly a multinational collection from all over the world,” said Julius Karangi, chief of the Kenyan general staff.
The attack killed people from many countries, including Britain, Canada, China, France, Ghana and India. Many Kenyans fear that the crisis could seriously hurt the economy, which is fueled by tourism and outside investment and is highly vulnerable to swings in perception. Kenya’s currency fell against the dollar on Monday.
On Monday, reflecting the breadth of the crisis, judges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague took the unusual step of suspending for one week the trial of Kenya’s deputy president, William Ruto, on charges of crimes against humanity so that he could return home to assist in the government’s response.
“We have been assaulted by hateful, unthinking cowards,” Mr. Ruto said at the airport upon his return.
“They work for the devil, we work for a living God,” he added. “We shall defeat them. We shall defeat them.” Said Mr Ruto.