Death toll in Kenya raised to 68 as forces push to end standoff

Terrorists who stormed upscale mall said to be holed up in one part of shopping center; large explosion rocks area and gun battles ongoing

Kenyan security personnel walk to their positions outside the shopping mall in Nairobi where Islamic extremist attackers hold an unknown number of hostages (photo credit: Sayyid Azim/AP)
Kenyan security personnel walk to their positions outside the shopping mall in Nairobi where Islamic extremist attackers hold an unknown number of hostages (photo credit: Sayyid Azim/AP)

Kenya’s Red Cross upped the death toll in a devastating terror attack on an upscale mall in Nairobi to 68 Sunday night, as security officials said they were gearing up for a final push to free hostages after an over-24-hour standoff.

In a statement Sunday, the Red Cross said nine more bodies were recovered in a joint rescue mission. Officials say more than 175 people were wounded in the attack.

Shortly before sun down, Kenyan forces launched an intensive offensive aimed at ending the two-day siege.

The assault came as two helicopters circled the mall, with one skimming very close to the roof. A loud explosion rang, far larger than any previous grenade blast or gunfire volley.

Kenyan police said on Twitter that a “MAJOR” assault by security forces was ongoing to end the two-day siege.

“This will end tonight. Our forces will prevail. Kenyans are standing firm against aggression, and we will win,” Kenya’s Disaster Operations Centre said on Twitter.

Associated Press journalists at the Westgate Mall said the explosion Sunday afternoon was by far the largest in the 30-hour siege. There was silence after the big blast.

The assault came about 30 hours after 10 to 15 al-Shabab extremists stormed the mall from two sides, throwing grenades and firing on civilians at will.

Loud exchanges of gunfire emanated from inside the four-story upscale mall, throughout the day Sunday. Kenyan troops were seen carrying in at least two rocket propelled grenades and helicopters hovered throughout the day. Al-Shabab militants reacted angrily to the helicopters on Twitter and said the Kenyan military action was endangering hostages.

Kenyan officials said they would do their utmost to save hostages lives, but no officials could say precisely how many hostages were inside. Kenya’s Red Cross said in a statement citing police that 49 people had been reported missing. Officials did not make an explicit link but that number could form the basis of the number of people held captive.

Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked rebel group, al-Shabab, claimed responsibility for the attack in which they used grenades and assault rifles and specifically targeted non-Muslims. The attackers included some women. The Islamic extremist rebels said the attack was retribution for Kenyan forces’ 2011 push into neighboring Somalia.

Al-Shabab said on its new Twitter feed — after its previous one was shut down on Saturday — that Kenyan officials were asking the hostage-takers to negotiate and offering incentives.

“We’ll not negotiate with the Kenyan govt as long as its forces are invading our country, so reap the bitter fruits of your harvest,” al-Shabab said in a tweet.

Earlier in the day, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta issued a statement in which he sent condolences to the families of those killed in the attack and well-wishes for quick recovery to those injured.

He blasted the “despicable perpetrators of this cowardly act” whose intent, he said was to “intimidate, divide and cause despondency among Kenyans.” Declaring that “open and united country is a threat to evildoers everywhere,” Kenyatta accused the terrorists of trying to force citizens to “retreat into a closed, fearful and fractured society where trust, unity and enterprise are difficult to muster.”

Kenyatta pledged to not allow the terrorists to succeed. “We have overcome terrorist attacks before… within and outside our borders. We will defeat them again.” He added that “terrorism… is the philosophy of cowards.

He also reiterated his government’s determination to continue fighting al-Shabab.

“We went as a nation into Somalia to help stabilize the country and most importantly to fight terror that had been unleashed on Kenya and the world,” said Kenyatta.”We shall not relent on the war on terror.”

He said that, although this violent attack had succeeded, the Kenyan security forces had “neutralized” many others.

Kenyatta said his nephew and his nephew’s fiancée were killed in the attack.

Westgate Mall is at least partially owned by Israelis, and reports circulated that Israeli commandos were on the ground to assist in the response. Four restaurants inside the mall are Israeli-run or -owned.

Israel has close ties to Kenya going back many years. And, in recent years, Israel has identified East Africa as an area of strategic interest and has stepped up ties with Kenya and other neighboring countries, due to shared threats posed by al-Qaeda and other extremist elements. In 2002, militants bombed an Israeli-owned luxury hotel near Mombasa, killing 13 people, and tried to shoot down an Israeli airliner at the same time.

According to a Kenyan security source, Israeli forces entered the mall, where a siege has been ongoing since Saturday, and “are rescuing the hostages and injured,” AFP reported.

However, an unnamed security source told Reuters that Israeli advisers were helping in negotiations, but not in operations.

“There are Israeli advisers helping with the negotiating strategy, but no Israelis involved in any imminent storming operation,” the Israeli source said.

Kenyan officials say 59 people have been killed and 175 injured in the coordinated terror attack, carried out by a group of up to 15 terrorists aligned with the Islamic Somali al-Shabab movement.

The attack began on Saturday, when witnesses said at least five gunmen — including at least one woman — first attacked an outdoor cafe at Westgate Mall, a shiny, new shopping center that hosts Nike, Adidas and Bose stores. The mall’s ownership is Israeli, and security experts have long said the structure made an attractive terrorist target.

Over 1,000 people have been evacuated or have fled the mall, officials said, and the terrorists remained inside with an unknown number of hostages in an ongoing siege.

AP reported that the cafe attacked is called Artcaffe; Kenyan websites said the cafe is owned by local Israelis.

Gilad Millo, a Nairobi-based Israeli, said two Israeli men and a woman who were in the mall when the attack began were unharmed and safe.

Yariv Kedar, one of the three Israelis who was in Artcaffe at the time, told Channel 2 he “heard the gunfire getting closer” and bullets whizzed “over our heads” before he managed to escape.

“We started by hearing gunshots downstairs and outside. Later we heard them come inside. We took cover. Then we saw two gunmen wearing black turbans. I saw them shoot,” said Patrick Kuria, an employee at Artcaffe.

President Shimon Peres, in a Sunday letter to Kenyatta, said, “I wish to extend my deepest condolences to the people of Kenya on the horrific terror attack in Nairobi. From the Holy Land we pray for the release of the hostages, the full recovery of the injured, and comfort for the families of the victims.”

Former Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga told reporters at the mall that a number of people were being held hostage on the third floor and the basement area of the mall, which includes stores for Nike, Adidas and Bose stores.

Kenyan security officials sought to reassure the families of hostages inside, but implied that hostages could be killed. The security operation is “delicate” because Kenyan forces hoped to ensure the hostages are evacuated safely, said Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Lenku.

“The priority is to save as many lives as possible,” Lenku said, adding that more than 1,000 people escaped the attack inside the mall on Saturday.

“We have received a lot of messages from friendly countries, but for now it remains our operation,” Lenku said.

More than 175 people were injured in the attack, Lenku said, including many children. Kenyan forces were in control of the mall’s security cameras, he said.

Britain’s prime minister, in confirming the deaths of three British nationals, told the country to “prepare ourselves for further bad news.”

“It’s an extremely difficult situation, but we’re doing everything we can to help the Kenyans in their hours of need,” David Cameron said.

“Violent extremists continue to occupy Westgate Mall. Security services are there in full force,” said the United States Embassy in an emergency text message issued Sunday morning advising Americans to stay indoors and close to home.

Kenyans and foreigners were among those confirmed dead, including British, French, Canadians, Indians, a Ghanaian, a South African, and a Chinese woman.

Kofi Awoonor, a Ghanaian poet, professor and former ambassador to Brazil, Cuba and the United Nations, died after being injured in the attack, Ghana’s presidential office confirmed. Ghana’s ministry of information said Awoonor’s son was injured and is responding to treatment.

Kenya’s presidential office said that one of the attackers was arrested on Saturday and died after suffering from bullet wounds.

Britain’s Foreign Office said that Foreign Secretary William Hague has chaired a meeting of Britain’s crisis committee and sent a rapid deployment team from London to Nairobi to provide extra consular support.

The United Nations Security Council condemned the attacks and “expressed their solidarity with the people and Government of Kenya” in a statement.

There was some good news on Sunday, as Kenyan media reported that several people in hiding in the mall escaped to safety, suggesting that not everyone who was inside overnight was being held by al-Shabab.

Cecile Ndwiga said she had been hiding under a car in the basement parking garage.

“I called my husband to ask the soldiers to come and rescue me. Because I couldn’t just walk out anyhow. The shootout was all over here — left, right— just gun shots,” she said.

Security forces had pushed curious crowds far back from the mall. Hundreds of residents gathered on a high ridge above the mall to watch for any activity. Police lobbed multiple rounds of tear gas throughout the day at hundreds of curious Kenyans who gathered near the mall.

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