Kenyan forces move to end siege at Nairobi mall as death toll mounts

Large explosion and gunfire heard at shopping center where al-Shabab gunmen killed 68 and injured at least 175

Kenya Defense Forces arrive at the Westgate mall in Nairobi on Sept. 22, 2013. Security forces are locked in a fierce firefight with Somali militants who are holding an unknown number of hostages inside the mall.
Simon Maina/AFP

Kenyan forces have brought more hostages out of a Nairobi shopping complex and are "closing in" on attackers, according to police inspector general David Kimaiyo. This follows a morning of reports of an explosion and sporadic heavy gunfire at the mall where armed men belonging to the Somali group al-Shabab are still believed to be holding a small number of captives. Monday's actions signal the latest push by government troops to end the siege, now in its third day.

Kenya said its security forces were in control of most of the Nairobi shopping center where at least 68 people were killed and 175 wounded.

Referring to an operation under way since early on Sunday after the storming of the upscale Westgate mall at lunchtime the previous day, a military spokesman said most of those who had been in the complex were now free.

He made no mention of killing or capturing militants but said commanders hoped to end the operation "very, very soon." 

The Somali militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack. Ten to 15 armed fighters are believed to still be in the building.

The attack, which targeted a mall popular with Westerners as well as Kenyans, could prove a major setback for Kenya, which relies heavily on tourism.

The dead included children as well as several foreigners, including renowned Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor. At least three British nationals are among the dead, British Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed Sunday.

The wounded ranged in age from 2 to 78. Many victims were at a cooking competition when assailants stormed in with automatic rifles and grenades, witnesses said.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, facing his first major security challenge since his election in March, said security forces were engaged in a "delicate operation," adding, "Our top priority remains to safeguard the lives of innocent people held up in this unfortunate incident."

Kenyatta said shooting continued for several hours after the initial attack, which began shortly after noon on Saturday but had become a tense calm by the evening.

On Sunday, in an apparent bid to end the standoff, Kenyan forces entered the mall, some carrying rocket propelled grenades. Meanwhile helicopters could be seen hovering above. Sporadic gunfire was heard throughout the day.

Israeli security advisers were said to be aiding the operation, with an Israeli source telling Reuters that they were helping with the "negotiating strategy" to end the siege.

Kenyan security forces have arrested one of the gunmen who stormed the Westgate complex, the Kenyan president said on Twitter. The Kenyan interior ministry said the upper floors of the four-story mall had been secured, and that the attackers had been isolated somewhere on the ground floor or in the basement.

Al-Shabab claim responsibility for the attack in messages posted on its purported Twitter account, stating that the assault was a response to Kenyan troops being in Somalia. On Sunday, Kenyatta said a probe was underway to confirm who was behind the attack.

Al-Shabab 'holding ground'

The French government confirmed that two of its citizens were killed in what President Francois Hollande described as a "cowardly attack.”

The United States government reported an undisclosed number of Americans injured. President Barack Obama phoned Kenyatta Sunday to express condolences and pledge support for Kenya’s "efforts to bring the perpetrators of the attack to justice."

A member of Canada's foreign service and a Vancouver businessman were were also among those killed in the mall attack, according to The Globe and Mail.

The United Nations Security Council condemned the attack "in the strongest possible terms," and reminded Kenya that any response must comply with international human rights law.

On its own purported Twitter account, al-Shabab said there would be no negotiations with Kenyan officials over the standoff.

"We’ll not negotiate with the Kenyan govt as long as forces are invading our country, so reap the bitter fruits of your harvest,” the group wrote.

Kenyan troops have been fighting al-Shabab in Somalia, where the anti-government group is seeking to impose Islamic law and has carried out numerous attacks.

Kenya has been hit by a spate of attacks including hand grenades and bombs since it sent troops to southern Somalia in late 2011 to attack al-Shabab bases.

Call for unity

"The border between Kenya and Somalia is very, very porous, and it's very difficult for authorities to control movement across the border," said Al Jazeera's Peter Greste, reporting from Nairobi. 

"There's also a very difficult relationship between Somali communities here and the security services; neither of them trust each other," he said.

In a live television statement late on Saturday, Kenyatta said that the country had "overcome terrorist attacks before" and vowed to "hunt down the perpetrators wherever they run to.”

"In fact, we have fought courageously and defeated them within and outside our borders - we will defeat them again," said Kenyatta.

Asked Sunday if he would pull troops out of Somalia, Kenyatta replied that Kenya would "not relent on the war on terror".

Earlier, the Kenyan president confirmed that his nephew and his nephew’s fiancé were killed in the attack.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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