AS helicopters circled overhead, Kenya's military last night launched a major operation to free hostages held by al-Qa'ida-linked militants, ending a two-day siege at a Nairobi shopping centre that left at least 68 people dead and 175 injured.
Military officials said they had rescued 'most' of the hostages in the assault, which began shortly before sundown.
It started with a helicopter skimming very close to the roof of the shopping complex as a loud explosion rang out – far larger than any previous grenade blast or gunfire volley.
Kenyan police said on Twitter that security forces had launched a "major" assault to end the bloody siege.
"This will end tonight. Our forces will prevail. Kenyans are standing firm against aggression, and we will win," Kenya's National Disaster Operation Centre said on Twitter.
The Kenya Defence Force later said it had rescued "most" hostages and had taken control of most of the mall, though it did not provide details.
Many of the rescued hostages – mostly adults – were suffering from dehydration, Colonel Cyrus Oguna, a military spokesman, said.
He refused to say how many hostages had been rescued or how many were still being held. He said some of the attackers had "most probably" been killed in the operation.
The assault came about 30 hours after 10 to 15 al-Shabab extremists stormed the mall Saturday from two sides, throwing grenades and firing on civilians.
Loud exchanges of gunfire rang out from inside the four-story mall throughout yesterday.
Kenyan troops were seen carrying in at least two rocket-propelled grenades. Al-Shabab militants reacted angrily to the helicopters on Twitter and warned that the Kenyan military action was endangering hostages.
Kenya's Red Cross said in a statement, citing police, that 49 people had been reported missing. Officials did not make an explicit link but that number could give an indication of the number of people held captive.
Kenya's Red Cross said the death toll rose to 68 after nine bodies were recovered yesterday. More than 175 people were injured, including many children, Kenyan officials said.
Somalia's al-Qa'ida-linked rebel group, al-Shabab, claimed responsibility for the attack that specifically targeted non-Muslims, saying it was in retribution for Kenyan forces' 2011 push into neighboring Somalia.
US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned what he called "an enormous offence against everybody's sense of right and wrong," and called the attackers "ruthless and completely reckless terrorists."
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said US law enforcement, military and civilian personnel in Nairobi were providing advice and assistance to the Kenyan authorities.
Kenyan security officials sought to reassure the families of hostages but implied that some of those being held could be killed.
"The priority is to save as many lives as possible," said Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Lenku, adding that more than 1,000 people escaped the attack on Saturday.
"We have received a lot of messages from friendly countries, but for now it remains our operation," Lenku said, adding that Kenyan forces controlled the mall's security cameras.
The mall is at least partially owned by Israelis, and reports circulated that Israeli commandos were on the ground to assist in the response. Four restaurants in the mall are Israeli-run. In Israel, a senior defence official said there were no Israeli forces participating in an assault, but said it was possible that Israeli advisers were providing assistance.