NAIROBI // Kenyan security forces were fighting shop to shop against Al Shabab terrorists last night in a final effort to end the Westgate mall siege.
Dark plumes of smoke rose from the mall for more than an hour after four thunderous explosions reverberated through the upmarket Westlands area of Nairobi.
The four explosions were followed by volleys of gunfire, then the thick, dark column of smoke that burnt for about 90 minutes. Military and police helicopters and one plane circled overhead.
The smoke was rising up and out of a large skylight inside the mall’s main department store and supermarket, Nakumatt.
It came from mattresses that the terrorists set on fire in the supermarket on the mall’s lower floors, the interior minister Joseph Ole Lenku said. The blaze was later brought under control.
Three attackers had been killed in the fighting by last night, the ministry said, and they had “arrested some individuals at the airport for questioning”. Eleven Kenyan soldiers were wounded in the running gun battles but by evening security officials were claiming the upper hand.
“We think the operation will come to an end soon,” Mr Lenku said. “We are in control of all the floors. The terrorists are running and hiding in some stores … there is no room for escape.”
Mr Lenku said 62 people are now known to have died since Islamist militants from Somalia launched their attack with grenades and automatic weapons in the mall on Saturday.
About 1,000 people were inside the building, and most escaped, with the wounded taken to hospital. Kenyan officials said on Sunday that most hostages had been rescued. They have given no numbers, but have said preserving the hostages’ lives was the top priority.
Mr Lenku said yesterday the rescue of hostages “has gone very, very well” and Kenyan officials were “very certain” there were few if any left in the building.
The chief of the defence force, Gen Julius Karangi, said Al Shabab fighters from several nations took part in the attack.
“We have an idea who these people are and they are clearly a multinational collection from all over the world,” he said.
Earlier witness reports had indicated that a woman was among the estimated 10 to 15 attackers. Gen Lenku said that instead some male attackers had dressed as women.
Kenyans and foreigners were among those confirmed dead, including British, French, Canadians, Indians, a Ghanaian, a South African and a Chinese woman. The UK foreign office said yesterday it had confirmed the deaths of four British nationals.
Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, an Al Shabab spokesman, said in an audio file posted on a website that the hostage takers had been ordered to “take punitive action against the hostages” if force was used to try to rescue them.
At the Oshwal Centre next to the mall, the Red Cross was using a squat concrete structure that houses a Hindu temple as a triage centre. Medical workers attended to at least two wounded Kenyan soldiers there.
Al Shabab said on a Twitter feed, an account that unlike some others appeared to be genuine, that the attackers had lots of ammunition. The feed said Kenya’s government would be responsible for any loss of hostages’ lives.
As the crisis passed the 48-hour mark, video filmed inside the mall’s main department store when the assault began showed frightened and unsure shoppers crouching amid long and loud volleys of gunfire
The Al Shabab militants stormed the mall on Saturday from two sides, throwing grenades and firing on civilians.
Al Shabab said the attack, targeting non-Muslims, was in retribution for Kenyan forces’ 2011 push into neighbouring Somalia.
The group grew out of the anarchy that crippled Somalia after warlords ousted a longtime dictator in 1991. Its name means The Youth in Arabic, and it was a splinter youth wing of a weak Islamic Courts Union government created in 2006 to establish an Islamist state.
Al Shabab is estimated to have several thousand fighters, including a few hundred foreign fighters. Some of the insurgents’ foreign fighters are 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.
Associated Press with additional reporting from Agence France-Presse