Kenyan special forces were today locked in a fight to the death with Islamic terrorists who have been barricaded inside a Nairobi mall with up to 40 hostages since Saturday.
Witnesses described hearing four large explosions at the Westgate Shopping Centre followed by fierce gun fire after the military tried to break the three day siege by gaining access from the roof.
It is feared that some of the gunmen inside may have blown themselves up, though a Kenyan government minister said that militants had set fire to some mattresses in a supermarket as a decoy.
Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku said that two of the terrorists had been killed and that most hostages were now free. All of the militants were men, he added, although some were dressed as women.
So far, 69 people have been confirmed dead including four Britons. At least 175 were injured, including children.
The Daily Mail offers information on some of the victims, whose number included French, Canadians, Britons, Dutch, and other foreign visitors shopping at the mall:
This morning it emerged that a British man had lost his wife and daughter in the massacre while a prize winning architect, who had joint British and Australian nationality was also among the dead.
The Foreign Office confirmed today that four Britons have now been killed in the atrocity.
Ross Langdon, 33, was killed alongside his heavily pregnant Dutch partner Elif Yavuz. The malaria specialist was just two weeks away from giving birth.
CNN adds that “a major African poet, author, and Ghanian statesman, Kofi Awoonor, also died.” At least five Americans are said to be among the wounded. One of the slain victims was the wife of a USAID representative.
The perpetrators are members of the Somali-based al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab, which CNN profiles here. They said they were retaliating for the presence of Kenyan peacekeepers in Somalia. The group has claimed that several American recruits are among the 10 to 15 members of the Westgate Shopping Center death squad, along with operatives recruited from the UK, Canada, Kenya, and Finland. Al-Shabaab is known to be especially active in the Minneapolis area, which has a large Somali population.
There is reportedly growing confidence among U.S. authorities that these claims are accurate. CNN says surveillance video from mall security cameras “appears to show a white woman taking part in the attack,” possibly a British woman named Samantha Lewthwaite, whose husband was one of the suicide bombers involved in the 2005 London subway bombings. As noted above, Kenyan officials insist all of the terrorists were male, but some of them might have been working in drag. The brave warriors of the mujahadeen like to have the element of surprise on their side before they courageously open fire on unarmed men, pregnant women, and children.
The attack began as a straightforward murder operation to kill non-Muslims, with the attackers inviting Muslim civilians to get out of the way before they started gunning everyone else down and lobbing grenades. According to eyewitnesses, the killers lined up forty captives, then shot everyone who could not accurately name the mother of Mohammed. The terrorists evidently decided to hunker down and take hostages when they realized it would bring them more sustained media attention. They sent out real-time Twitter updates on the carnage from inside the mall. A UK Daily Mail piece from Sunday has some astounding, horrifying, and occasionally graphic photos of the attack as it unfolded.
Despite Kenyan claims that most of the hostages are safe, it is thought that from 50 to 200 civilians remain trapped inside the mall – possibly hiding from the terrorists, rather than being held at gunpoint as hostages. [Update: It should be noted there is a great deal of confusion on this point – it’s difficult to determine exactly who was in the mall when the attack began.] The Daily Mail relates a chilling bulletin from al-Shabaab headquarters:
Kenyan troops have moved in to end the siege but spokesman for terror group Al Shabaab Ali Mohamud Rage said in a statement posted on an Islamist website that those held inside will ‘bear the brunt of any force’ used by soldiers against the militants.
The statement read: ‘We authorise the mujahedeen inside the building to take actions against the prisoners as much as they are pressed.
‘We are telling Christians advancing onto the mujahedeen to have mercy for their prisoners who will bear the brunt of any force directed against the mujahedeen.’
The Al-Qaeda linked group claimed to be in contact with the fighters inside the mall and said the gunmen were battling both Kenyan and Israeli forces.
That last bit isn’t just the usual Islamist anti-Israel paranoia; according to some reports, there really are Israeli counter-terrorist operatives on the scene, working in at least an advisory capacity. The Westgate Shopping center is partially owned by Israelis, a detail that would surely have been known to al-Shabaab.
Update: Of all the photos I have seen coming out of Nairobi, the one I used at the top of this post is the image that stuck with me the most. You want to know what bravery, courage, and righteousness really look like, “holy warriors?” It’s the man in that photo, risking his life to help a terrified little girl out of the crossfire.