NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Kenyan security forces were in the final stages of flushing out Islamic extremist terrorists from a besieged shopping mall, the vice president said late Monday, two days after the upscale mall was seized by members of a Somali group linked to al-Qaida.
It is unlikely that any more hostages remained inside Westgate Mall, said another official.
But similar claims of a quick resolution were made by Kenyan officials on Sunday and the siege has continued for another day. It is not possible to independently verify their assertions.
Three attackers were killed in the fighting Monday, officials said, and more than 10 suspects arrested. Eleven Kenyan soldiers were wounded in the running gun battles. 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 said the evacuation of hostages “has gone very, very well” and that Kenyan officials are “very certain” that there are few if any hostages left in the building.
Vice President William Ruto landed in Kenya late Monday after International Criminal Court officials in The Hague gave him permission to return to Kenya. Ruto is on trial for crimes against humanity charges over allegations he helped orchestrate Kenya’s 2007-08 post-election violence.
Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku revised the death toll to 62. Kenyan officials earlier said 59 people have died since the siege on Westgate Mall began on Saturday, while the Red Cross had put the toll at 68, then in a tweet lowered it to 62, saying some bodies had been counted twice.
Earlier witness reports had indicated that a woman was among the estimated 10 to 15 attackers. Lenku said that instead some male attackers had dressed up like women.
Dark plumes of smoke rose from the mall for more than an hour Monday afternoon after four large explosions rocked the upscale Westlands neighborhood. A person with knowledge of the rescue operation told The Associated Press that the smoke was rising up and out of a large skylight inside the mall’s main department and grocery store, Nakumatt, where goods like mattresses may have been lit on fire.
The four explosions were followed by volleys of gunfire, then a thick, dark column of smoke that burned for roughly 90 minutes. Military and police helicopters and one plane circled over the Nairobi mall, giving the upscale neighborhood the feel of a war zone.
Kenyan forces were in charge of all floors inside the mall, though terrorists could still be hiding inside, said Kenya Chief of Defense forces Gen. Julius Karangi.
Fighters from an array of nations participated in the attack claimed by al-Shabab, said Karangi.
“We have an idea who these people are and they are clearly a multinational collection from all over the world,” he said.
In the United States, the FBI is looking into whether Americans were involved in the Kenya mall attack, said FBI spokesman Paul Bresson.
On Sunday Kenyan officials announced that “most” hostages had been rescued. But no numbers were given. Kenya’s Red Cross said in a statement, citing police, that 49 people had been reported missing. Kenyan officials have never said how many hostages they thought the attackers had, but have said preserving the hostages’ lives is a top priority.
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 Monday it has confirmed the deaths of four British nationals.
From neighboring Somalia, spokesman Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage for al-Shabab — the militant group that claimed responsibility for the attack — 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 center. Medical workers attended to at least two wounded Kenyan soldiers there on Monday.
Al-Shabab said on a Twitter feed, an account that unlike some others appears to be genuine, that the attackers had lots of ammunition. The feed said that Kenya’s government would be responsible for any loss of hostages’ lives.
As the crisis passed the 48-hour mark, a video emerged that was taken by someone inside the mall’s main department store when the assault began. The video showed frightened and unsure shoppers crouching as long and loud volleys of gunfire could be heard.
The al-Shabab extremists 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 neighboring Somalia.
Al-Shabab is an extremist Islamic terrorist force that 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 a fundamentalist Islamic state in the East African nation.
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.