Blast shakes Westgate mall, smoke pours from building
23 September 2013, 14:00
Nairobi - A loud explosion sent thick smoke billowing from the Nairobi mall where militants from Somalia's al Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab group threatened to kill hostages on the third day of a raid in which at least 59 have already died.
The blast was followed by other smaller detonations and volleys of gunfire but there was no indication of the fate of people whom the authorities say are being held by 10 to 15 Islamist gunmen who took the complex by storm on Saturday.
As troops ran into new positions, security official told Reuters at the scene: "It is us who caused the explosion, we are trying to get in through the roof." Meanwhile police claimed that the fire was set in the Nakumatt located in the mall and was set by the Al-Shabaab rebels.
A plume of oily black smoke was still pouring from the building after 15 minutes.
A senior officer had said police were "closing in" on the militants after rescuing more trapped people overnight. But officials have been suggesting since Sunday that the siege may be near an end, while the guerrillas seemingly remain at large.
Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku said "a few" people were still hostage: "Our disciplined forces ... have been extremely careful to find the balance between neutralising the attackers and getting as many people to safety as possible," he added.
A spokesman for al-Shabaab, which has demanded Kenya pull its troops out of neighbouring Somalia, warned they would kill hostages if Kenyan security forces, who are being assisted by Western and Israeli experts, tried to storm their positions:
"Israelis and Kenyan forces have tried to enter Westgate by force but they could not," Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage said in an audio statement posted online. "The mujahideen will kill the hostages if the enemies use force."
On Twitter, the group posted: "As the operation gathers momentum inside #Westgate, the Mujahideen are for the 3rd day still in full control of the situation on the ground."
The Red Cross said on Monday that the death toll since Saturday's initial lunchtime bloodbath stood at 69. But Interior Minister Lenku said that was wrong and that only 59 were dead.
The Red Cross also said it had also recorded 63 people being reported by relatives as missing.
Survivors' tales of the military-style assault by squads of attackers hurling grenades and spraying automatic fire, has left little doubt the hostage-takers are willing to kill. Previous raids around the world, including at a desert gas plan in Algeria nine months ago, suggest they are also ready to die.
President Uhuru Kenyatta refused on Sunday to pull Kenyan troops out of Somalia, where they have pushed al-Shabaab on to the defensive over the past two years as part of an African Union-backed peacekeeping mission across the northern border.
Asked on Sunday about whether captives had been wired with explosives, he declined comment. Kenyatta said all the gunmen were in one place. But a Kenyan soldier told reporters near the mall on Monday that the assailants and hostages were dispersed.
"They're in the cinema hall, with hostages. There are other terrorists in different parts," the soldier said. "They are on the upper floors, the third and fourth floors."
Previously, officials had indicated that the militants may have been grouped in a supermarket on the lower floors.
A London man, Jermaine Grant, faces trial in Kenya for possession of explosives. Police suspect an al-Shabaab plot to attack restaurants and hotels used by Westerners and have been hunting for another Briton, Samantha Lewthwaite, the widow of a suicide bomber who took part in the London 7/7 attacks of 2005.
Some British newspapers speculated on the role the "White Widow" might have played at Westgate. The term "black widow" has been used by Chechen militants in Russia for women taking part in bombings and assaults after the deaths of their husbands.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, confirming that at least three Britons were already among the dead, said: "We should prepare ourselves for further bad news."
U.S. President Barack Obama called Kenyatta to offer condolences and support. Israel, whose citizens own stores in the Israeli-built mall and have been targeted by Islamists in Kenya before, said Israeli experts were also helping.
As well as Kenyans, foreigners including a French mother and daughter and two diplomats, from Canada and Ghana, were killed. Ghanaian Kofi Awoonor was a renowned poet. Other victims came from China and the Netherlands. Five Americans were wounded.