NAIROBI // The death toll in an ongoing Nairobi shopping mall siege was expected to rise sharply on Sunday from the 68 people confirmed dead.
Police warned of further deaths just before Kenyan troops, backed by Israeli advisers, launched a major assault in the upscale Westgate Mall where as many as 15 Al Shabab militants were holding hostages.
“We fear the death toll ... it could be much, much higher than what we have, judging from the bodies sighted inside,” a police spokesman said.
Kenya’s National Disaster Operation Centre reported “sporadic gunfire”, while a loud explosion was heard as troops moved inside the sprawling complex.
Military and police helicopters were also reported flying over the mall.
“Godspeed to our guys in the Westgate building,” Kenya’s National Disaster Operation Centre said on Twitter. “Major engagement ongoing.”
Kenyan security officials did not – or could not – say how many people were being held captive. Kenya’s Red Cross said 68 people had been killed and 49 had been reported missing. Officials did not make an explicit link but that number could indicate the number of people held captive.
The mall is at least partially owned by Israelis, and reports circulated that Israeli commandos were on the ground to assist in the response. Four restaurants inside the mall are Israeli-run or owned.
In Israel, a defence official said Israeli advisers were providing assistance.
“There are Israeli advisers helping with the negotiating strategy, but no Israelis involved in any imminent storming operation.”
Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, vowing to stand firm against the militants, was cautious about the outcome, saying chances of the siege ending well were “as good ... as we can hope for”.
“We will punish the masterminds swiftly and painfully,” he said.
Previous such raids, in Russia, the 2008 Mumbai attacks or January’s Al Qaeda assault on an Algerian gas plant, have generally ended with many hostages losing their lives.
Mr Kenyatta’s nephew and his fiancée were killed in Saturday’s attack and more than 175 people wounded remained in hospital.
Kenyans and foreigners were among those confirmed dead, including British, French, Canadians, Indians, a Ghanaian, a South African and a Chinese woman.
Kofi Awoonor, a Ghanaian poet, professor and former ambassador to Brazil, Cuba and the United Nations, died after being injured in the attack, Ghana’s presidential office confirmed. Ghana’s ministry of information said Awoonor’s son was injured and is responding to treatment.
The UAE President Sheikh Khalifa, the Vice President Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, yesterday sent cables of condolence to the Kenyan president expressing their deepest thoughts and prayers for the victims of the attack and offering the support of the government and people in dealing with the “cowardly criminal act”.
Barack Obama, the US president, also expressed his condolences over what the White House called a “terrorist attack” in a call to Mr Kenyatta, and offered support to bring the perpetrators to justice.
The British prime minister, David Cameron, confirming three Britons were dead, said: “We should prepare ourselves for further bad news.”
For hours after the brazen attack, the dead were strewn around tables of unfinished meals. At one burger restaurant, a man and woman lay in a final embrace, before their bodies were removed.
Scores of Kenyans gathered yesterday at a site overlookingthe mall, awaiting what they expected to be a violent end to the crisis.
“They entered through blood, that’s how they’ll leave,” said Jonathan Maungo, a private security guard.
Mr Kenyatta, facing his first major security challenge since being elected in March, urged wealthy governments not to warn their citizens against visiting a country heavily dependent on tourist income, while insisting he would not pull out Kenyan troops from Somalia: “We shall not relent on the war on terror.”
Saying all the gunmen were in one place, Mr Kenyatta said: “With the professionals on site, I assure Kenyans that we have as good a chance to successfully neutralise the terrorists as wecan hope for.”
The president’s office said one of the attackers was arrested on Saturday and died from bullet wounds.
The British Foreign Office said the foreign secretary, William Hague, had chaired a meeting of Britain’s crisis committee and sent a rapid deployment team to Nairobi to provide extra consular support.
The United Nations Security Council condemned the attacks and “expressed their solidarity with the people and Government of Kenya” .
There was some good news on Sunday, as Kenyan media reported that several people in hiding in the mall escaped to safety, suggesting that not everyone who was inside overnight was being held by Al Shabab.
Cecile Ndwiga said she had been hiding under a car in the basement car park.
“I called my husband to ask the soldiers to come and rescue me. Because I couldn’t just walk out anyhow. The shootout was all over here – left, right – just gun shots,” she said.
* Agence France-Presse with additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press