NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenyan security forces took control of the besieged shopping mall in Nairobi Monday, killing two militants and freeing an unspecified number of hostages as it sought to end a two-day siege in which 69 people died.
Police and army officials occupy every level of the four-story Westgate Mall and the operation to flush out the gunmen and rescue those held captive may end “soon,” Interior Secretary Joseph Ole Lenku told reporters. Smoke continued to billow out of the building about three hours after a fire broke out amid sporadic bursts of gunfire.
“Evacuating hostages has gone on very well,” Ole Lenku said. “We are very certain that they are very, very few hostages if any in the building.”
The attack was the deadliest in the country since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in downtown Nairobi that killed 213 people. Al-Shabab, the Somali Islamist militant group, claimed responsibility for the raid.
The group had threatened to strike Kenya after it deployed troops in Somalia in October 2011 to fight the militants whom it blamed for a series of kidnappings and the murder of a British tourist in Kenya. Al-Shabab denied the accusations
The attack began Sept. 21 when armed assailants burst into the mall around lunchtime, tossing hand grenades and spraying gunfire. At least 63 people are missing, the Kenya Red Cross said earlier today. It’s unclear if anyone left in the building is being forcibly held or hiding.
The attackers, all of them male and some of whom were dressed in female clothing, are “a multinational collection” of people, Kenya Chief of Defense Forces General Julius Karangi said.
A series of large explosions and automatic gunfire rocked the upscale mall at about 1:15 p.m. Shortly afterward, dozens of soldiers, some of them carrying heavy machine guns, and an army tank were seen at the main access road to the complex as thick black smoke billowed from the building.
The attackers had set fire to Nakumatt, a retail store, in the mall to create a distraction and possibly escape, Karangi said. Authorities have surrounded the building, he said.
“The risk for an attack on Westgate or another of Nairobi’s upscale malls was high and well known, but also very difficult to prevent entirely,” Clare Allenson, an Africa analyst at Eurasia Group in Washington, said in an email. “However, the lack of adequately equipped police first responders and generally poor communication and coordination of early efforts to secure the building underscores the weak state of Kenya’s security institutions overall.”
Accelerating growth in Kenya, East Africa’s largest economy, and its reputation as a relatively stable democracy has made the country a regional hub for companies including Toyota Motor Corp., and Google Inc., and the African headquarters for the United Nations.
Kenya’s prestige has already been shaken by International Criminal Court indictments of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, for their alleged involvement in crimes against humanity.
The men are accused of organizing violence following a disputed election in 2007, charges both deny. More than 1,100 people were killed in two months of ethnic and political clashes.
The court Monday allowed Ruto a one-week absence from his trial, which began on Sept. 10, to permit him to deal with the crisis.
Kenyatta, who lost a nephew in the attack, vowed to hunt down the attackers.
“We will punish the masterminds swiftly and painfully,” Kenyatta, 51, said in a nationally televised press briefing Sunday. Foreigners including four Britons, two French people, two Canadians, a South African, a Chinese, and Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor are confirmed among the dead.
The Westgate Mall caters to wealthy Kenyans and expatriate employees with about 80 shops that include cafes, a casino, a multi-screen movie theater, and a children’s play area.
Survivors of the attack hid in air vents, supply closets and washrooms for hours and found different ways to escape including jumping onto a next-door building or were escorted by security officials, some clutching children and crying.
World leaders and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki- moon have condemned the attacks and offered to help. President Barack Obama called Kenyatta Sunday to express his condolences and reiterate U.S. support to bring the attackers to justice, according to a statement from the White House.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a Republican member of the House intelligence committee, said he’s worried that the group may attack in the United States.
Al-Shabab is one of the only al-Qaida affiliates that has actively recruited in the United States, King said yesterday on ABC’s “This Week.”
© Copyright 2013 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.