Saturday 23 September 2017

Death toll hits 67 as Kenyan siege finally comes to an end

Kenyan Defence Force soldiers at the Westgate shopping centre on the fourth day
Kenyan Defence Force soldiers at the Westgate shopping centre on the fourth day
Forces comb the rooftop of the centre
Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta addresses the nation

Mike Pflanz and Aislinn Laing Nairobi

Kenya's four-day hostage crisis appeared to have finally reached its bloody end, with suspicion growing that Irish-born Samantha Lewthwaite was one of the terrorists who massacred at least 67 people.

Uhuru Kenyatta, the Kenyan president, declared that the "unspeakable atrocity" at Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall was "now over", but added that "our losses are immense".

Three floors of the mall had collapsed because of bombs set off by the terrorists, he said last night, with an unknown number of bodies trapped in the rubble.

At least 61 civilians and six members of the security forces died in the siege, though that number is likely to rise significantly, as the Red Cross said 51 people were still listed as missing.

Five terrorists were killed and 11 were arrested.

Mr Kenyatta said: "We have ashamed and defeated our attackers, that part of our task is completed."

SPECULATION

Meanwhile Kenya's foreign minister fuelled speculation that Lewthwaite, a woman born in Banbridge, Co Down, known as the "white widow", had taken part in the attack by saying a British woman who had been involved with terrorism "many times" had been killed by soldiers.

South Africa's home affairs department said it was investigating claims that Lewthwaite had slipped into Kenya using a forged South African passport.

Mr Kenyatta announced the end of the siege at around 8pm local time (6pm GMT) and said: "Intelligence reports had suggested that a British woman and two or three American citizens may have been involved in the attack. "We cannot confirm the details at present but forensic experts are working to ascertain the nationalities of the terrorists."

Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed said a British woman was involved in the attack "and I think she has done this many times before". She also claimed the American suspects were teenagers.

Suspicions that Lewthwaite, the widow of 7/7 suicide bomber Germaine Lindsay, was one of the terrorists were further increased by news that the South African authorities were investigating claims she had used a forged South African passport to enter Kenya.

An employee at a crafts shop in the mall said a "pale-skinned woman" opened fire on her during the first minutes of the siege on Saturday.

The employee, who gave her name only as Caroline, was hiding under a display stand when she locked eyes with the woman on the balcony of the floor above.

"She was high up but not far from me, close enough that I saw her looking along the floor where I was until she saw me," she said.

"She stopped and aimed at me and then opened fire. All of the bullets did not hit me, I don't know how that happened. She stopped firing at me for a moment and looked away and I jumped up and ran around a corner and that's how I escaped.

"She had pale skin and long black hair, and was wearing a baggy black top."

However, a spokesman for al-Shabaab denied any women were involved in the attack.

Mr Kenyatta announced three days of national mourning in Kenya as he said: "We have been badly hurt, but we have been brave, united and strong. Kenya has stared down evil and triumphed. We confronted this evil without flinching, contained our deep grief and pain, and conquered it."

He added: "Towards the tail end of the operation, three floors of the Westgate mall collapsed and there are several bodies trapped in the rubble including the terrorists."

Questions remain about why the siege went on for so long.

"It's just a mess, in terms of what's happened in there," said one diplomatic source.

"We understood that there were hostages, alive, who were being held and that's why it took so long and was what they called a delicate operation. Some were brought out on Sunday, maybe two on Monday, it's not clear. We don't know where the rest are, or if there were any others."

Laban Onditi Rao, vice-chairman of the Kenyan National Chamber of Commerce, who was liaising with the mall's owners and security staff during the siege, said: "What we are expecting from the investigators audit is an explanation of how these people carried so many weapons without being found.

"There is the idea that they hired a shop there, and that would give them accessibility all over the mall, and would allow some of them to pass security easily because they would be known.

"My position, and the police will investigate this, is that there was a very serious lapse in security, which may have gone on for six months.

"Otherwise how did they bring so many weapons in, or such kind of uniforms that they were wearing?"

TAUNTS

Manoah Esipisu, spokesman for Mr Kenyatta, said that "we are leaving nothing to chance" in the investigation.

Al-Shabaab used Twitter to taunt the Kenyan authorities during the day, saying at one point that there were "countless dead bodies" inside the mall, and describing the terrorists as "unruffled and strolling around the mall in such a sang froid manner".

It also said that "all hostages are strapped (with) remote control bombs" and that "one thing is clear, no hostage is getting out alive... not this time".

At hospitals and mortuaries around Nairobi yesterday, Kenyans and expatriates gathered to identify, and mourn, those killed in the attacks.

At the MP Shah hospital, close to the Westgate Mall, one member of the medical staff said. "These were close-range executions. People had injuries from spraying bullets but when they were killed, they were shot in the head from one or two metres." (©Daily Telegraph, London)

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