A “final assault” is under way to lift the siege of Nairobi’s Westgate mall, where terrorists belonging to the Somali militant group al-Shabaab have been battling Kenyan security services.
Heavy, sustained gunfire could be heard as dawn broke this morning at the shopping centre, accompanied by at least two large explosions.
Commando teams were seen entering the huge four-storey building at around twilight on Sunday in a final attempt to end the siege, which had last night claimed the lives of at least 68 people, including three Britons.
The Kenyan Defence Forces said on Twitter that a major military operation had secured the majority of the building and that “most of the hostages” inside the shopping centre had been rescued. Four of the rescue squad were injured in the operation.
This morning the country’s Interior Ministry tweeted to ask people to “keep away from Westgate as the security agencies do all that must be done to end the siege”.
Prime Minister David Cameron said he was cutting short a trip to Balmoral to return to Downing Street and chair a meeting of COBRA, the Government’s crisis response committee.
Mr Cameron offered “every assistance” in a call to Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, whose nephew was killed in the attack, and it is reported that British anti-terror units are in Nairobi helping on the peripheries of the rescue operation.
Judges at the International Criminal Court have also responded quickly to the ongoing situation, adjourning the case of Kenyan deputy president William Ruto for one week so that he can return home to provide assistance. He stands charged of crimes against humanity in relation to violence after the 2007 elections.
The defence force teams entered through the mall’s front terrace on Sunday in what police sources said would be a “final assault” to end the crisis.
Military helicopters circled the commercial district of Westlands, where building sites and new office blocks have in recent years sprung up among the flower stalls and squatter camps. A roof landing was attempted. Soon after, the National Disaster Operation Centre posted the following message on Twitter: “Godspeed to our guys in the Westgate building. Major engagement ongoing. Sporadic gunfire.”
Ambulances were seen leaving the scene about two hours after a loud blast emanated at sunset from the siege which could be heard more than a kilometre away. Trucks partially covered with blankets were reported on one exit road, raising fears that more fatalities have been suffered during attempts to overwhelm the militants.
The death toll had climbed to 68, according to Kenya’s Red Cross last night, with at least 175 injured and many more bodies feared still to be inside, strewn around among the wreckage of what had been Nairobi’s plushest shopping centre.
Mr Cameron confirmed that three Britons had died in the attack, which began when at least a dozen heavily armed fighters blasted their way into the mall at midday on Saturday. “We should prepare ourselves for further bad news,” he warned.
The cosmopolitan nature of the attackers’ target was reflected in the international death toll. The mall was frequented by UN staff from the nearby headquarters in Gigiri, as well as the wealthy local élite, foreign diplomats and expat workers. Among the dead were French, Canadian, Dutch, Indian, Ghanaian, American and Chinese citizens.
Most of the victims were Kenyan and included members of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s own family – a nephew and his fiancée, who were both killed.
A Twitter account, linked to al-Shabaab, which claimed responsibility for the attack, posted the names of 10 people it said were among the attackers inside the shopping centre. The list included three Americans, one Finn and a 24-year-old from London. The account was subsequently suspended.
A Foreign Office source said the Government was aware of the claims and was investigating. “It is not something we can rule out,” the source said. “We are looking into it.”
Al-Shabaab has also used British volunteers in Kenya to set up attacks, partly because English is widely spoken there.
An official told The Independent: “It may well be that UK nationals were involved – I would not be surprised if that was the case.”
The Somali Islamist group claimed responsibility for the attack on its Twitter feed on Saturday, posting: “The attack at #WestgateMall is just a very tiny fraction of what Muslims in Somalia experience at the hands of Kenyan invaders.” It continued: “For long we have waged war against the Kenyans in our land, now it’s time to shift the battleground and take the war to their land.” The account was suspended soon after.
No negotiations have taken place with the attackers, and a spokesman for the group said in a clip posted on www.somalimemo.net this morning: “Israelis and Kenyan forces have tried to enter Westgate (mall) by force but they could not, the mujahideen (fighters) will kill the hostages if the enemies use force.”
Security advisors from Jerusalem are understood to be assisting with the effort to reclaim control of the Israeli-owned shopping centre.
Eyewitness reports suggest one of the terrorists is a woman who had reportedly barked orders at people during the killing spree on Saturday, telling Muslims to identify themselves and leave. Some non-Muslims who attempted to talk their way past the fighters armed with grenades and AK-47s were asked to identify the mother of the Prophet. Those who could not were shot on the spot.
A Kenyan military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the attackers’ location had been pinpointed using the mall’s CCTV cameras. They had split into two groups occupying part of the ground-floor section of the Nakumatt supermarket, he said, while another half-dozen alleged jihadists were holed up in a second-floor restaurant where local reports claimed they were protecting themselves with bullet-proof glass.
Kenyan government spokesman Joseph Ole Lenku told reporters that no demands had been made and no negotiations had been entered into with the attackers. While many Kenyans have been braced for a terror attack since the country’s armed forces were sent across the border into Somalia in 2011, few had been prepared for loss of life on this scale.
As the shock of Saturday passed there was an unprecedented turnout at blood banks set up by the Kenyan Red Cross. Queues stretched around entire blocks as many people waited in the hot sun for hours to give blood.
A Red Cross official said that donor centres had been overwhelmed by the scale of the response. “We never expected such a turnout,” he said. Many of the donors were surprised to find that Kenya’s usually aggressive minibus touts were giving discounts or free travel to people going to donate blood.
Kenya’s President, who will soon face trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), said that his country was united and would be “strong in adversity”.