Americans and a British woman were among the terrorists who attacked a Nairobi shopping mall, killing more than 60 people, Kenya’s foreign minister said today.
Amina Mohamed said the attackers included “two or three Americans” and “one Brit”. She told the PBS NewsHour programme that the Americans were 18 to 19 years old, of Somali or Arab origin and lived “in Minnesota and one other place” in the US. The Briton was a woman who has “done this many times before”, she said.
Her comments came as Kenyan security forces battled al Qaida-linked terrorists in the upmarket mall for a fourth day in what they said was a final push to rescue the last few hostages in a siege that has left at least 62 people dead.
Despite Kenyan government assurances of success on Twitter, another explosion and more gunfire could be heard coming from the mall at around 6.30am local time today, reporters at the scene said. Security forces carried a body out of the mall, which remained on fire, with flames and smoke visible.
While the government announced 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”.
US officials said they were looking into whether any Americans were involved. A state Department spokeswoman said the department had “no definitive evidence of the nationalities or the identities” of the attackers.
The security expert said many hostages had been freed or escaped in the previous 24-36 hours, including some who were in hiding. But there were at least 30 hostages when the assault by al-Shabab militants began on 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 above the Westgate complex for more than an hour yesterday after four large explosions rocked the surrounding neighbourhood.
The explosions were followed by volleys of gunfire as police helicopters and a military jet circled overhead, giving the neighbourhood the feel of a war zone.
By 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 yesterday, 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.
A Western security official in Nairobi said the only reason the siege had not 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, was 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 by 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 defence forces General 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 neighbouring Somalia. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya since the 1998 al Qaida truck bombing of the US 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 long-time 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.
Ms Mohamed said Kenya needed to work with other governments to fight the increasing terrorist threat and “much more with the US and the UK, because both the victims and the perpetrators came from Kenya, the United Kingdom and the United States. From the information we have, two or three Americans and so far I’ve heard of one Brit”.
She added: “That just goes to underline the global nature of this war that we are fighting.”
Somali president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said the attack showed that al-Shabab was a threat not just to Somalia but to the international community.
Kenyans in many parts of the country stood in long lines yesterday to donate blood to aid the nearly 200 people injured in the attack.