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Kenyan president declares victory in mall siege

Sep. 24, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Uhuru Kenyatta, William Ruto
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, center, flanked by Deputy President William Ruto, left, and other senior government and security officials, makes a television address in Nairobi, Kenya, on Sept. 24. (AP)
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NAIROBI, KENYA — “Just seeing dead bodies,” Kenya prepared for the gruesome task of recovering dozens more victims than initially feared after its president declared an end Tuesday to the four-day siege of a Nairobi mall by al-Qaida-linked terrorists. Officials said the death count could jump by another 60 or more.

“We have ashamed and defeated our attackers,” President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a televised address to the nation that was delayed for hours as gunbattles persisted at the upscale Westgate mall. “Kenya has stared down evil and triumphed.”

Despite Kenyatta’s declaration, troops remained deployed at the vast complex, and security officials told The Associated Press attackers with weapons or booby traps might still be inside. A plan to remove bodies was aborted because of continued skirmishes inside the mall, where three floors had collapsed.

Describing the victims as “innocent, harmless civilians” of “various nationalities, races, ethnic, cultural, religious and other walks of life,” a solemn-looking Kenyatta reported the known death toll: at least 61 civilians, along with six security forces and five al-Shabab militants.

About 175 people were injured, including 62 who remain hospitalized, he said, acknowledging that “several” bodies remained trapped in the rubble, including those of terrorists.

However, another government official said a far higher toll was feared and morgue workers were preparing to receive up to 60 more bodies. A Western embassy official said the number of additional dead could go as high as 100. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss information not publicly disclosed.

“They’re just seeing dead bodies. They’ve found no survivors, no live hostages,” said a Nairobi resident whose brother was taking part in the military sweep inside the mall. He spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because his brother was not authorized to publicly release the information.

Kenyatta said 11 suspects had been arrested; authorities previously announced that seven had been taken into custody at the airport and three elsewhere.

“These cowards will meet justice as will their accomplices and patrons, wherever they are,” an emotional Kenyatta declared.

“We confronted this evil without flinching, contained our deep grief and pain, and conquered it,” he said. “As a nation, our head is bloodied, but unbowed.”

Kenyatta declared three days of national mourning starting Wednesday.

Kenyatta said forensic experts would examine the corpses of the assailants to determine their identities, softening earlier assertions by Kenya’s foreign minister that Americans and a Briton were involved in the siege.

“Intelligence reports had suggested that a British woman and two or three American citizens may have been involved in the attack,” the president said. “We cannot confirm the details at present but forensic experts are working to ascertain the nationalities of the terrorists.”

Kenyan officials as early as Sunday evening began declaring near-victory over what they said were 10 to 15 attackers, some who wore black turbans and many with grenades strapped to their vests. But battles inside the shopping complex continued, straining the credibility of victory declarations.

Booming explosions on Monday collapsed a second-story parking garage down into a department store — blasts that lit cars on fire and sent dark plumes of smoke skyward for nearly two hours. Explosions continued throughout Tuesday, and the chatter of gunfire from inside the building could be heard. Fresh smoke rose from the building in the afternoon.

Fears persisted that some of the attackers could still be alive and loose inside the rubble of the mall, a vast complex that had shops for retailers like Bose, Nike and Adidas, as well as banks, restaurants and a casino.

Two Kenyan soldiers who had been inside the mall shortly before the president spoke said the operation was mostly over, but security forces were still combing the facility and had not definitively cleared all the rooms. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were under orders not to speak to the media.

Another higher-ranking security official involved in the investigations said it would take time to search the whole mall before declaring that the terrorist threat had been crushed. That official also insisted on anonymity.

Al-Shabab, whose name means “The Youth” in Arabic, first began threatening Kenya with a major terror attack in late 2011, after Kenya sent troops into Somalia following a spate of kidnappings of Westerners inside Kenya.

The group used Twitter throughout the four-day siege to say that Somalis have been suffering at the hands of Kenyan military operations in Kenya, and the mall attack was revenge.

“You could have avoided all this and lived your lives with relative safety,” the group Tweeted Tuesday. “Remove your forces from our country and peace will come.”

Al-Shabab, responding to a request from AP, denied that any women had attacked the mall.”

“We have an adequate number of young men who fully committed and ready to sacrifice their lives for the sake of Allah and for the sake of their religion,” said the al-Shabab press office in what is thought to be an authentic email address.

The militants specifically targeted non-Muslims, and at least 18 foreigners were among the dead, including six Britons, as well as citizens from France, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Peru, India, Ghana, South Africa and China. Five Americans were among the wounded.

The mall attack was the deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya since the 1998 al-Qaida truck bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, which killed more than 200 people.

Security officials in Nairobi always knew that Westgate, which was popular with foreign residents of the capital as well as tourists and wealthy Kenyans, was a likely target for terror attacks.

Matt Bryden, a former coordinator of the U.N.’s Somalia monitoring group, said it would have been impossible to adequately protect the complex without transforming its character from a pleasant shopping experience into a U.S. Embassy-like fortress.

“The issue now,” he said, “is how this operation escaped detection. Was it so well-planned and operational security so tight that they managed to beat the system, or was it because there was a serious lapse of intelligence, or was it both?”

“To prevent future attacks the emphasis needs to be figuring it out and fix it, and not turning all shopping malls and restaurants and hotels into embassy-like fortresses.”

A U.S. Embassy vehicle, identifiable by its numbered diplomatic license plate, arrived at the morgue on Tuesday. American officials have not confirmed the deaths of any U.S. citizens, but it appeared possible the morgue visit was by security officials with an agency like the FBI who were seeking information about one of the bodies inside.

Kenyatta said friendly nations offered various forms of assistance. American, British, French and perhaps most importantly Israeli advisers assisted the hostage-rescue mission, though security officials said all military actions were carried out by Kenyans.

Kenyatta singled out President Obama, as well as the leaders of Israel and Britain, for their support.

Associated Press reporters Rodney Muhumuza, Ben Curtis, Adam Schreck and Jacob Kushner in Nairobi, Kenya, Cassandra Vinograd in London, and Abdi Guled in Mogadishu, Somalia, contributed to this report.

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