- Published on Monday, 23 September 2013 04:20
- Written by Correspondent
- Hits: 1876
Islamist militants were holed up with hostages at a shopping mall in Nairobi, where at least 62 people have been killed in an attack by the al Shabaab group that opposes Kenya’s participation in a peacekeeping mission in neighbouring Somalia.
A volley of gunfire lasting about 30 seconds interrupted a stalemate of several hours, a Reuters witness said, speaking from near the Westgate shopping centre that has several Israeli-owned outlets and is frequented by expatriates and Kenyans.
President Jakaya Kikwete now in New York, US, has expressed dismay and shock at the incident in a message of condolences to Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, according to Tanzania Information Services. firm against Somali militants, was cautious about the outcome, saying chances of the siege ending well were “as good ... as we can hope for”.
Foreigners, including three Britons and two diplomats - one from Canada and another from Ghana - were killed in yesterday’s attack at the upmarket mall, claimed by Somali group al Shabaab.
Shortly after the shots were fired, troops in camouflage ran crouching below a restaurant terrace along the front of the building that had been buzzing with customers when assailants charged in. One witness said they first told Muslims to leave. Scores of Kenyans gathered at a site overlooking the mall, awaiting what they expected to be a violent denouement.
“They entered through blood, that’s how they’ll leave,” said Jonathan Maungo, a private security guard. President Uhuru Kenyatta, facing his first major security challenge since a March election, said some of his close family members were among the dead, and vowed to defeat the militants.
“We have overcome terrorist attacks before,” he said. He later addressed the nation, and the world, urging wealthy governments not to warn their citizens against visiting a country heavily dependent on tourist income, while insisting he would not pull Kenyan troops out of Somalia. He said he would “not relent on the war on terror”.
As he spoke there was a new volley of gunfire inside the mall, shortly after about a dozen security personnel in camouflage moved inside the building. Saying all the gunmen were now in one place, Kenyatta said: “With the professionals on site, I assure Kenyans that we have as good a chance to successfully neutralize the terrorists as we can hope for.”
Foreign governments have offered help. The assault was the biggest single attack in Kenya since al Qaeda’s East Africa cell bombed the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998, killing more than 200 people. In 2002, the same militant cell attacked an Israeli-owned hotel on the coast and tried to shoot down an Israeli jet in a coordinated strike. Al Shabaab’s siege underlined its ability to cause major disruptions with relatively limited resources.
“In terms of capacity, while the group has grown considerably weaker in terms of being able to wage a conventional war, it is now ever more capable of carrying out asymmetric warfare,” said Abdi Aynte, director of the Mogadishu-based Heritage Institute of Policy Studies, a regional policy and security think tank. President Kenyatta said women were among the attackers.
Asked whether any hostages had had explosives strapped to them, he said he would not comment on operational issues. Aynte also said the raid showed “a major failure on the part of the Kenyan security services”, which had not detected an operation that must have taken several months to plan.
Other experts said Western agencies had also not picked it up. Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku told reporters the death toll had risen to 59, and that security forces were doing everything they could to rescue hostages still inside the mall. He added that 175 people had been taken to hospital after an assault that could prove a costly setback for east Africa’s biggest economy, which relies heavily on tourism revenues.
Kenya’s deputy president, William Ruto, asked judges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague to allow him to return home to help deal with the siege and its aftermath. He and Kenyatta face charges of crimes against humanity for their alleged role in coordinating violence that swept Kenya in the aftermath of the country’s contested 2007 elections.
They both deny the charges. The dead in Saturday’s assault included children, and the wounded ranged in age from two to 78. Many victims were at a cooking competition when assailants opened fire on them, witnesses said. More than 1,000 people were evacuated.
The focus of attention on Sunday was on the mall’s branch of Nakumatt supermarket, one of Kenya’s biggest chains. Soldiers joined the security operation backed by armored personnel carriers in the hours after the attack that was launched around 12.30 p.m. (0930 GMT) on Saturday. Security forces have been combing through the mall, clearing the floors.
As helicopters hovered over the capital, a paramilitary officer at the scene, a rifle slung over his shoulder, said: “They will be arranging how to attack (the assailants).” An Israeli security source said that Israeli advisers were at the scene helping Kenya work out how to end the siege.
One woman emerged on Sunday morning after hiding under a vehicle in the basement car park. Giving her name as Cecilia, she told Reuters by telephone later she had seen three men who looked like they were of Arab extraction judging by their skin color.
“They were shooting from the exit ramp, shooting everywhere,” she said. “I saw people being shot all around me, some with blood pouring from bad wounds. I was just praying, praying God keep me alive and that my day hadn’t come.” France said two of its citizens were killed, and Canada said two Canadians died, including a 29-year-old diplomat.
Ghanaian diplomat and poet, Kofi Awoonor, was also killed, as was a Chinese woman, according to China’s official news agency. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who offered assistance to Kenya, said several U.S. citizens had been hurt and the wife of a U.S. diplomat working for the U.S. Agency for International Development was killed. Al Shabaab, which is battling Kenyan and other African peacekeepers in Somalia, had repeatedly threatened attacks in Kenya if Nairobi did not pull its troops out of their country.