Kenyan troops have launched a “major” assault on al Shabaab militants holding hostages at a Nairobi shopping mall, the government crisis team said Sunday, in a bid to end a deadly siege that the Red Cross says has so far claimed 68 lives.
Kenyan troops have launched a “major” assault on al Shabaab militants holding hostages inside a Nairobi shopping mall in an effort to bring an end to a deadly siege that has so far claimed 68 lives, the government crisis team said Sunday.
“Godspeed to our guys in the Westgate building. Major engagement ongoing,” Kenya’s National Disaster Operation Centre said in a message on Twitter.
“This will end tonight,” the operation centre tweeted. “Our forces will prevail. Kenyans are standing firm against aggression, and we will win.”
The announcement came hours after a large explosion was reported at the besieged shopping centre.
The Red Cross said on Sunday that the death toll in the unrest had risen to 68, with police saying that number was likely to increase as more dead had been seen inside the building. At least 175 people were injured in the attack.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a televised address earlier on Sunday that Kenya would “not relent in the war on terror” in light of Saturday’s militant attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall.
Kenyatta also urged the international community to “join hands” in the fight against terrorism, saying: “This is not a Kenyan war. This is an international war.”
The president’s nephew and his nephew’s fiancée were among those killed in the attack.
Kenyatta had said earlier that the security forces were engaged in a “delicate operation”, with the priority being to safeguard the lives of the people being held.
Barrages of gunfire were heard coming from the mall earlier Sunday afternoon as al Shabaab Islamic militants were reportedly holed up with the hostages in the mall’s Nakumatt supermarket, one of Kenya’s biggest chains.
“The criminals are now all located in one place within the building … we have as good a chance to successfully neutralise the terrorists as we can hope for,” Kenyatta said.
Moments after the shots were heard, two wounded Kenyan security guards were carried out of the shopping centre and taken away in ambulances.
The Somali Islamist group al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack on the upmarket mall, which is frequented by foreign expatriates as well as Kenyans. Several foreigners – including two French citizens, a 29-year-old Canadian diplomat and at least three Britons – were among the dead.
Ghanaian poet and author Kofi Awoonor was also killed.
Kenya’s Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku said Sunday that more than 59 people had been killed, while another 175 had been wounded. He told reporters that the government believed that 10 to 15 militants had been involved in the attack, saying they were investigating their identity but would not give details.
By Sunday afternoon, Israeli forces were reportedly assisting Kenyan efforts to end the siege.
“The Israelis have just entered and they are rescuing the hostages and the injured,” a Kenyan security source told AFP. The Israeli foreign ministry refused to confirm or deny whether its forces were involved.
Al Shabaab taunts on Twitter
Al Shabaab, which has links to al Qaeda and is battling Kenyan and other African peacekeepers in Somalia, had repeatedly threatened attacks on Kenyan soil if Nairobi did not pull its troops out of the Horn of Africa country. Kenya sent its troops into Somalia in October 2011 to help the country’s government combat the militants.
The group appeared to taunt the security forces, saying on its official Twitter handle @HSM_Press that there would be no negotiations whatsoever with Kenyan officials over the standoff.
“10 hours have passed and the Mujahideen are still strong inside #Westgate Mall and still holding their ground. All praise is due to Allah!”, the group tweeted.
The group’s Twitter account has since been suspended.
Reporting from outside the Westgate mall, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Nairobi, Duncan Woodside, said that precise information on what was happening inside the building was difficult to obtain.
“We’re hearing from three different sources, including the Red Cross, the Kenyan police and an army officer, that the situation on the ground floor and the first floor is under control, that those areas have been cleared,” he said.
“But on the two floors above that there is still this ongoing situation involving the Islamists holding hostages.”
A fierce gun battle erupted between the police and the militants after Saturday’s initial assault. The shooting continued hours after the first attack. Soldiers then managed to enter the building, hunting for the attackers shop by shop.
Some of those rescued said at least one of the attackers was a woman. Another militant was shot and arrested, but died shortly afterwards at a hospital.
Trucks brought in a fresh contingent of soldiers from the Kenya Defense Forces early Sunday to back the combined military and police force that surrounded the mall overnight.
Attack ‘way beyond’ anything seen before
It is not the first time al Shabaab has launched attacks on Kenyan soil. In January 2012, the group claimed a raid on a police station in Kenya’s Wajir district, taking two hostages who were later released, while in March of the same year it was blamed for a grenade attack at a bus station in Nairobi that killed four people.
However, the attack on Westgate mall “goes way beyond anything that al Shabaab or their affiliates have done in Kenya so far”, said Woodside.
“This was a very sophisticated attack,” he said. “There were different attackers, grenades thrown and men with AK-47s. It could suggest that there is some kind of foreign involvement here beyond the local Kenyan cells of al Shabaab, though quite what those external elements are we’re not sure at the moment.”
Al Shabaab’s last major offensive outside Somalia was a twin attack in neighbouring Uganda. The June 2010 attack targeted people watching the World Cup final on television in Kampala, killing 79 people.
Watch reporting from the scene below.