The four-day siege of Nairobi’s upscale Westgate shopping mall that has left more than 60 people dead and hundreds injured has finally drawn to a close, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said.
In a televised address to the nation, Mr Kenyatta said Kenyan forces had “defeated” the militants belonging to Somalia’s Al Qa’ida-linked al-Shabaab group, who stormed the shopping centre on Saturday, mowing down security guards and civilians with machine guns and grenades in a meticulously-planned orgy of terror that left scores dead, many of them children.
The death toll is expected to rise sharply after three floors of the mall collapsed towards the end of the operation, trapping bodies in the rubble. Six members of Kenya’s security forces were killed during the siege. Five militants had been killed and 11 others were said to be in custody.
“We have shamed and defeated our attackers, that part of our task is completed,” said Mr Kenyatta, who lost a nephew in the attack.
“Our losses are immense. We have been badly hurt, but we have been brave, united and strong. Kenya has stared down evil and triumphed. We have defeated our enemies and showed the whole world what we can accomplish,” he said, announcing three days of national mourning.
Mr Kenyatta added that forensic experts were now trying to establish whether a British woman and “two or three” American nationals were among the attackers.
“We cannot confirm the details at present but forensic experts are working to ascertain the nationalities of the terrorists,” he said.
Earlier, Kenya’s foreign minister, Amina Mohamed, suggested that a white woman was among the militants, fuelling speculation that she could be Samantha Lewthwaite, the British widow of one of the London 7/7 bombers thought to be hiding out in central Kenya. The Foreign Office has confirmed that it is investigating reports that at least one of the attackers may be of British origin, but UK officials have urged caution over the apparent involvement of Lewthwaite.
Al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility for the attack – the worst on Kenyan soil since the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy that killed 213 - saying it was retaliation for the presence of Kenyan troops on Somali soil. Mr Kenyatta has refused to pull out Kenyan forces, which have as part of an African peacekeeping force in Somalia helped weaken the militant group in the past two years.
It remained unclear if all of the militants left in the mall had been accounted for, with the president saying “the worst” of the crisis was over.
Kenya’s security forces have struggled to gain control of the mall, and have on several occasions prematurely signaled that the government operation to rout the militants was nearing a conclusion. Those assurances have been further undermined by upbeat tweets from the Somali militant group, who at various times claimed to be holding off security forces. Earlier, the group wrote on its Twitter feed that “there are countless number of dead bodies still scattered inside the mall, and the Mujahideen are still holding their ground #Westgate.” It went on to describe its fighters as “unruffled and strolling around the mall in such sangfroid manner.”
A security expert with contacts inside the shopping centre said there were at least 30 hostages when the assault began on Saturday, and at least 10 were believed to be still inside. With the shopping centre cordoned off behind heavy security, it has not been possible to verify the assertions independently.
According to eyewitness accounts, at least one of the attackers escaped early on in the siege by changing his clothes to blend in with survivors.
Mr Kenyatta, who is facing trial in the Hague for his alleged role in orchestrating ethnic tensions after Kenya’s 2007 elections, called for national unity, and said in his address that “these cowards will meet justice… wherever they are.”
In Geneva, Somalia’s prime minister called for greater international support to combat al-Shabaab but said it required more than a purely military response. “We still have a difficult journey ahead of us,” said Abdi Farah Shirdon. “A military solution alone is not enough, promotion of rule of law, greater regional cooperation and economic stability and provision of public services are all key factors that complement the military effort.”
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