Heavy burst of gunfire heard from shopping mall; all hostages believed to have been freed.
Two or three of the militants who took over a Nairobi mall, killing at least 62 people, were American citizens, a Kenyan official said overnight Tuesday.
Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed said “two or three Americans” and “one Brit” were among those who attacked the mall. In an interview with the PBS “NewsHour” program, she said that the Americans were 18 to 19 years old, of Somali or Arab origin and lived “in Minnesota and one other place” in the United States.
U.S. officials said they were looking into whether any Americans were involved. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that the department had “no definitive evidence of the nationalities or the identities” of the attackers.
A heavy burst of gunfire was heard from the Nairobi shopping mall, suggesting that the complex had not yet been secured, a Reuters witness said on Tuesday.
Kenya’s Interior Ministry had said early on Tuesday that its forces were “in control” of the mall and had freed all hostages.
Until Tuesday morning’s gunfire, there was an eerie silence outside the mall after a day in which gunfire and explosions were heard in the Westgate mall. A trickle of survivors escaped the building throughout the day on Monday, but the fate of people listed as missing was unclear.
Somalia’s Al-Qaida-linked Al-Shabab group has claimed responsibility for the attack, which began at lunchtime on Saturday. Kenyan officials say there were 10 to 15 attackers.
President Barack Obama offered U.S. support, saying he believed Kenya – the scene of one of al Qaida’s first major attacks, in 1998, and a neighbor of chaotic Somalia – would continue to be a regional pillar of stability.
A government official said there was no resistance from the attackers late on Monday night after a barrage of gunfire and blasts throughout the day, but that the security forces were cautious in case some attackers were hiding in the building.
“Our forces are combing the mall floor by floor looking for anyone left behind. We believe all hostages have been released,” the Ministry of Interior said on Twitter.
The siege has followed a pattern of bursts of gunfire and activity followed by long lulls.
Al Qaida killed more than 200 people when it bombed the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. When fighters from its Somali ideological counterpart stormed the mall on Saturday, they hit a high-profile symbol of Kenya’s economic power.
Obama, whose father was born in Kenya, said the United States stood with Kenyans against “this terrible outrage”.
“We will provide them with whatever law enforcement support that is necessary. And we are confident that Kenya will continue to be a pillar of stability in eastern Africa,” he said in New York.
Kenya has sent troops to Somalia as part of an African Union force trying to stabilize the country, which was long without a functioning government, and push back al Shabaab.
It has also suffered internal instability. President Uhuru Kenyatta, who lost a nephew in the weekend bloodbath, faces charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court for his alleged role in coordinating violence after disputed elections in 2007. He denies the charges.
Kenyatta has dismissed a demand that he pull Kenyan forces out of Somalia, saying he would not relent in a “war on terror.”
Kenyatta vowed to “punish the masterminds swiftly and painfully.”
British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said he believed six Britons had died in the attack. Other known foreign victims are from China, Ghana, France, the Netherlands and Canada. Kenyan officials said the total death toll was at least 62.
“Israel empathizes with the Kenyan people’s pain”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on the telephone Monday and conveyed his condolences for the attack.
“Israel empathizes with the Kenyan people’s pain,” Netanyahu told Kenyatta, “and with your own personal loss due to the terror attack. We value your nation’s determined struggle against terrorism.”
Israel, whose citizens own stores in the Israeli-built mall and have been targeted by Islamists in Kenya before, said Israeli experts were also helping.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
The Al-Shabab extremists stormed the mall on Saturday from two sides, throwing grenades and firing on civilians. The group 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.
A spokesman for al Shabaab, which has demanded Kenya pull its troops out of neighboring Somalia, had earlier warned they would kill hostages if Kenyan security forces, who are being assisted by Western and Israeli experts, tried to storm their positions:
“Israelis and Kenyan forces have tried to enter Westgate by force but they could not,” Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage said in an audio statement posted online. “The mujahideen will kill the hostages if the enemies use force.”
Survivors’ tales of the military-style assault by squads of attackers hurling grenades and spraying automatic fire, has left little doubt the hostage-takers are willing to kill. Previous raids around the world, including at a desert gas plan in Algeria nine months ago, suggest they are also ready to die.
Kenyan president vows to hold firm in ‘war on terror’
President Kenyatta refused on Sunday to pull Kenyan troops out of Somalia, where they have pushed al Shabaab on to the defensive over the past two years as part of an African Union-backed peacekeeping mission across the northern border.
Asked on Sunday about whether captives had been wired with explosives, he declined comment. Kenyatta said all the gunmen were in one place. But a Kenyan soldier told reporters near the mall on Monday that the assailants and hostages were dispersed.
“They’re in the cinema hall, with hostages. There are other terrorists in different parts,” the soldier said. “They are on the upper floors, the third and fourth floors.”
Previously, officials had indicated that the militants may have been grouped in a supermarket on the lower floors.
A London man, Jermaine Grant, faces trial in Kenya for possession of explosives. Police suspect an al Shabaab plot to attack restaurants and hotels used by Westerners and have been hunting for another Briton, Samantha Lewthwaite, the widow of a suicide bomber who took part in the London 7/7 attacks of 2005.
Some British newspapers speculated on the role the “White Widow” might have played at Westgate. The term “black widow” has been used by Chechen militants in Russia for women taking part in bombings and assaults after the deaths of their husbands.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, confirming that at least three Britons were already among the dead, said: “We should prepare ourselves for further bad news.”
As well as Kenyans, foreigners including a French mother and daughter and two diplomats, from Canada and Ghana, were killed. Ghanaian Kofi Awoonor was a renowned poet. Other victims came from China and the Netherlands. Five Americans were wounded.
Al Shabaab’s siege underlined its ability to cause major disruptions with relatively limited resources, even after Kenyan and other African troops drove it from Somali cities.
“While the group has grown considerably weaker in terms of being able to wage a conventional war, it is now ever more capable of carrying out asymmetric warfare,” said Abdi Aynte, director of Mogadishu’s Heritage Institute of Policy Studies.
Others pointed to divisions within the loose al Shabaab movement that may have driven one faction to carry out the kind of high-profile attack that may help win new support.
“External attacks tend to happen when a group is trying to consolidate,” said Leah Farrall, a former senior intelligence analyst with the Australian Federal Police. “In recent months, you have been seeing a tremendous amount of fracturing in their domestic environment,” she said of al Shabaab’s Somali base.
The 2008 Mumbai attacks, which also involved mass shooting and hostage taking, was driven in part, analysts believe, by competition for funds and volunteers with other Islamist groups.
Al Shabaab’s last big attack outside Somalia was a double bombing in Uganda that killed 77 people watching soccer on television in 2010. The Westgate assault is the biggest such incident in Kenya since al Qaeda’s East Africa cell bombed the U.S. embassy in Nairobi in 1998, killing more than 200 people.