Kenya’s government said it’s close to ending a siege by Islamist militants of an upscale mall in the capital that left 69 people dead after security forces killed three gunmen and freed an unspecified number of hostage.
Police and army troops occupy every level of the four-story Westgate Mall in Nairobi and the operation to flush out the remaining gunmen may go into the night, Interior Secretary Joseph Ole Lenku told reporters yesterday. More than 10 suspects were arrested for questioning, the Interior Ministry said, without providing further details.
“We are at the tail-end of the problem,” Ole Lenku said in an interview aired by the British Broadcasting Corp. “We have really cornered the building, we have taken control of the building. It is very unlikely there are any hostages.”
The attack that began on Sept. 21 was the deadliest in the country since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in downtown Nairobi that killed 213 people. Al-Shabaab, 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-Shabaab denied the accusations.
The incident began when armed assailants burst into the mall, tossing hand grenades and spraying gunfire. At least 63 people are missing, the Kenya Red Cross said.
The attackers, all of them male and some of whom were dressed in female clothing, are “a multinational collection” of people, Kenya Chief of Defence Forces General Julius Karangi said yesterday.
A series of large explosions and gunfire rocked the upscale mall at about 1:15 p.m. yesterday. 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 shilling weakened as much as 0.3 percent and closed 0.2 percent lower at 87.55 per dollar on the first day of trading since the ordeal began. On the Nairobi Securities Exchange, the FTSE NSE 25 Index dropped for the first time in five days, falling 0.2 percent to 164.28.
“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 e-mailed note. “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. (7203) and Google Inc. (GOOG) 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.
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 on Sept. 22. Foreigners including six 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 United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have condemned the attacks and offered to help. President Barack Obama called Kenyatta on Sept. 22 to express his condolences and reiterate U.S. support to bring the attackers to justice, according to a statement from the White House.
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