Gunfire and explosions were continuing at the Westgate mall at midday on Tuesday, contradicting the Kenyan government’s claim that the four-day hostage siege is over.
Kenyan media are reporting that six of the heavily armed attackers have been killed by security forces, but others may still be alive and holding hostages. An estimated 10 to 15 attackers were believed to have shot their way into the mall on Saturday.
The Somali-based militant group, al-Shabab, said on its Twitter feed on Tuesday that its fighters were “still holding their ground” and continuing to hold hostages. The claim was unconfirmed, and there was no indication of how the group had contact with the attackers.
Intermittent gunfire and explosions were heard from the mall throughout Tuesday morning.
Kenyan authorities have been insisting since Sunday that the hostage siege was almost over. They say that their soldiers are in full control of the mall and are merely “mopping up” and checking for explosives. But its claims have been repeatedly contradicted by clear evidence of continued fighting, including a huge blaze at the mall that continued to burn on Tuesday afternoon, 24 hours after it began.
Kenya’s foreign minister, Amina Mohamed, has told a U.S. television network that the attackers included “two or three” Americans and a British woman. Her claim could not be confirmed, and Kenyan authorities had earlier insisted that no women were among the attackers.
Meanwhile, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, said on Tuesday that she is ready to work with Kenyan and international authorities to ensure that the Westgate attackers are “brought to justice.” Kenya’s parliament has voted to withdraw from the international court in the wake of the court’s decision to put Kenya’s president and deputy president on trial for alleged crimes against humanity.
U.S. security sources said they were looking into information from Kenya that residents of Western countries, including the United States, may have been among the militants.
“We do monitor very carefully and have for some time been concerned about efforts by al-Shabab to recruit Americans or U.S. persons to come to Somalia,” White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said, adding he had no direct information that Americans participated.
A spokesman for the British High Commission in Nairobi said:
“We are not going to be drawn into speculation about the identity of the attackers while the investigation is ongoing.”
Britain, Kenya’s former colonial ruler, has like other nations offered support to help pursue those behind the attack.
U.S. President Barack Obama, whose father was born in the east African nation, offered U.S. help, saying he believed Kenya – the scene of one of al –Qaeda’s first major attacks, in 1998, and a neighbour of chaotic Somalia – would continue to be a regional pillar of stability.
Kenyan officials have tried to reassure the country that they are in command of the situation. Officials said there would a news briefing on the situation later on Tuesday.
“We appeal for patience, keep calm, avoid Westgate at all costs and wait for the official communication,” the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government in The Office of the President said on Twitter.
Al-Qaeda killed more than 200 people when it bombed the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. When fighters from its Somali ideological counterpart stormed the mall on Saturday, they hit a high-profile symbol of Kenya’s economic power.
Kenya has sent troops to Somalia as part of an African Union force trying to stabilise the country, which was long without a functioning government, and push back al-Shabab.
It has also suffered internal instability. President Kenyatta, who lost a nephew in the weekend bloodbath, faces charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court for his alleged role in coordinating violence after disputed elections in 2007. He denies the charges.
Kenyatta has dismissed the demand he pull Kenyan forces out of Somalia, saying he would not relent in a “war on terror.”
British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said he believed six Britons had died in the attack. Other known foreign victims are from China, Ghana, France, the Netherlands and Canada. Kenyan officials said the total death toll was at least 62.
Conflicting comments have fuelled speculation about the attackers’ identity. While the foreign minister said there was a woman attacker killed, Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku had said on Monday they were all men but some had dressed as women.
A Kenyan intelligence officer and two soldiers also told Reuters that one of the dead militants was a white woman, likely fuel speculation that she is the wanted widow of one of the suicide bombers who together killed more than 50 people on London’s transport system in 2005.
Called the “white widow” by the British press, Samantha Lewthwaite is wanted in connection with an alleged plot to attack hotels and restaurants in Kenya. Asked if the dead woman was Lewthwaite, the intelligence officer said: “We don’t know.”
From Mali to Algeria, Nigeria to Kenya, violent Islamist groups – tapping into local poverty, conflict, inequality or exclusion but espousing a similar anti-Western, anti-Christian creed – are striking at state authority and international interests, both economic and political.
John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, said he believed insurgents such as those who rebelled in Mali last year, the Nigerian Boko Haram Islamist sect and the Nairobi mall raiders were also partly motivated by anger with what he called “pervasive malgovernance” in Africa.
“This is undoubtedly anti-Western and anti-Christian but it also taps into a lot of deep popular anger against the political economy in which they find themselves, in which a very small group of people are basically raking off the wealth,” he said.
With files from Reuters