Published September 24, 2013
NAIROBI (AFP) – Kenyan troops on Tuesday battled Islamists making their final stand in a deadly shopping mall siege, on the fourth day of the attack by Al-Qaeda-linked militants said to include Americans and a British woman.
Sporadic shooting at the upmarket Westgate mall broke out again at dawn, hours after officials had claimed Kenyan troops were in "control" of the sprawling complex.
At least 62 shoppers and staff have been killed and close to 200 wounded in the siege, but concerns are high that the toll may yet rise.
Security sources said "one or two" militants were taking a final stand against special forces in or around a casino on one of the upper floors of the complex.
Government spokesman Manoah Esipisu told AFP early Tuesday the siege was close to being declared over, with special forces "sanitising" the complex in case "there are a couple of them hiding in a remote room or corner."
As the interior ministry said early Tuesday that all hostages trapped by the militants are believed to have been freed, Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed said that several American nationals and a British woman were among the fighters.
Somalia's Al Qaeda-linked Shebab insurgents have claimed the attack, which began midday on Saturday when the armed militants marched into the packed upscale complex, tossing grenades, firing automatic weapons and sending panicked shoppers fleeing.
No details on the numbers of hostages released have been given, but 63 people were earlier recorded missing by the Red Cross, a figure thought to include hostages as well as those possibly killed.
"We think that everyone, the hostages, have been evacuated," Esipisu said, with security sources saying those freed were taken to a military hospital.
At least 11 Kenyan troops were wounded in intense gun battles on Monday, the army said.
Special forces on Monday also killed at least three gunmen and wounded several in bitter fighting in the part Israeli-owned complex, which was popular with wealthy Kenyans and expatriates.
A Kenyan security source and a Western intelligence official said Israeli forces were also involved in operations, along with British and US agents.
Kenyan army chief Julius Karangi said the gunmen were of different nationalities. Many foreign fighters, including Somalis with dual nationalities, are members of the Shebab force.
"They are from different countries. We have sufficient intelligence this is global terrorism," Karangi said.
In an interview with US public broadcaster PBS, Kenya's foreign minister said Americans and a British woman were among the attackers.
"The Americans, from the information we have, are young men, about between maybe 18 and 19,"
Asked if the Briton was a woman, she replied: "Woman. And she has, I think, done this many times before."
Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku had earlier denied that any of the insurgents were women: "All the terrorists are men," he said, noting: "Some of them had dressed like women."
Police said they had also arrested more than 10 people for questioning.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, whose nephew was killed along with his fiancee, called the attack "despicable and beastly."
The Shebab rebels said the carnage was in retaliation for Kenya's military intervention in Somalia where they are battling the Islamists.
"If you want Kenya in peace, it will not happen as long as your boys are in our lands," rebel spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage said in a statement posted on an Islamist website.
Shocked witnesses said the attackers tried to weed out non-Muslims for execution by interrogating people on their religion or asking them to recite the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith.
The dead include six Britons including a British-Australian, two French women, two Canadians including a diplomat, a Chinese woman, two Indians, a South Korean, a South African and a Dutch woman, according to their governments.
Also killed was Ghanaian poet and former UN envoy Kofi Awoonor, 78, while his son was injured.
British businessman Louis Bawa said his daughter Jennah, 8, and wife Zahira were among the dead.
He told the Daily Telegraph that "my heart just stopped" when he was asked to identify them from photographs taken of those killed at the mall.
"The people who did this, they are vigilantes, they are animals," Bawa said.
Mall worker Zipporah Wanjiru survived by hiding under a table with five other colleagues.
"They were shooting indiscriminately, it was like a movie seeing people sprayed with bullets like that," she said, bursting into tears.
Security camera footage seen by Kenyan media showed gunmen firing a barrage of bullets into bathrooms where people were hiding.
Away from Westgate, Nairobi on Tuesday appeared to have returned to largely business as usual, but the attacks have shocked Kenyans deeply.
Blood donor appeals ended after banks filled with donations from hundreds, while almost $600,000 (435,000 euros) has been raised to support the families affected.
Israeli interests in Kenya have come under attack before, and the Westgate mall -- popular with well-to-do Kenyans, diplomats, UN workers and other expatriates -- has long been seen as a potential target.
World powers condemned the chilling attack, the worst in Nairobi since an Al-Qaeda bombing at the US embassy killed more than 200 people in 1998.
US President Barack Obama called Kenyatta offering "whatever law enforcement support that is necessary", while UN chief Ban Ki-moon said the violence was "totally reprehensible".