Kenyan security forces battled al-Qaida-linked terrorists in an upscale mall for a third day Monday in what they said was a final push to rescue the last few hostages in a siege that has left at least 62 people dead.
While the government announced Sunday that “most” hostages had been released, a security expert with contacts inside the mall said at least 10 were still being held by a band of attackers described as “a multinational collection from all over the world.”
The expert, who insisted on anonymity to talk freely about the situation, said many hostages had been freed or escaped in the previous 24-36 hours, including some who were in hiding.
However, there were at least 30 hostages when the assault by al-Shabab militants began Saturday, he said, and “it’s clear” that Kenyan security officials “haven’t cleared the building fully.”
Flames and dark plumes of smoke rose Monday above the Westgate shopping complex for more than an hour after four large explosions rocked the surrounding neighborhood. The smoke was pouring through a large skylight inside the mall’s main department and grocery store, where mattresses and other flammable goods appeared to have been set on fire, a person with knowledge of the rescue operation told The Associated Press.
The explosions were followed by volleys of gunfire as police helicopters and a military jet circled overhead, giving the neighborhood the feel of a war zone.
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 Joseph Ole Lenku said the evacuation of hostages had gone “very, very well” and that Kenyan officials were “very certain” that few if any hostages were left in the building.
But with the mall cordoned off and under heavy security it was not possible to independently verify the assertions. Similar claims of a quick resolution were made by Kenyan officials on Sunday and the siege continued. Authorities have also not provided any details on how many hostages were freed or how many still remain captive.
Three attackers were killed in the fighting Monday, Kenyan authorities said, and more than 10 suspects arrested. Eleven Kenyan soldiers were wounded in the running gun battles.
Somalia’s al-Qaida-linked rebel group, al-Shabab, which claimed responsibility for the attack, said the hostage-takers were well-armed and ready to take on the Kenyan forces.
An al-Shabab spokesman, Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage, said in an audio file posted on a militant website that the attackers had been ordered to “take punitive action against the hostages” if force was used to try to rescue them.
A Western security official in Nairobi who insisted on not being named to share information about the rescue operation said the only reason the siege hadn’t yet ended would be because hostages were still inside.
Westgate mall, a vast complex with multiple banks that have secure vaults and bulletproof glass partitions, as well as a casino, is difficult to take, the official said.
At least 62 people were killed in the assault Saturday by some 12 to 15 al-Shabab militants wielding grenades and firing on civilians inside the mall.
The militants specifically targeted non-Muslims, and at least 18 foreigners were among the dead, including six Britons, as well as citizens from France, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Peru, India, Ghana, South Africa and China. Nearly 200 people were wounded, including five Americans.