The current situation at the Westgate shopping complex in the Kenyan capital Nairobi remains as confused as when the crisis erupted on Saturday. The Kenyan Interior Minister says his forces are now in control of all five floors of the building, yet shooting has been heard in streets outside, leading to speculation that some or all of the al-Shabaab terrorists are trying to shoot their way to freedom.
The interior minister says three terrorists were killed in the assault, and several others were seriously injured. More than 10 arrests have been made, and 11 Kenyan troops were hurt retaking Westgate.
Government forces, along with US special units, began what they called the final assault to weed out the dozen or so al-Shabaab terrorists just after dawn. Almost immediately they were able to report the liberation of a number of people who had remained hiding in the complex since Saturday. As they faced up to the terrorists their task was made more difficult by their use of hostages as human shields. Nonetheless they were able to kill two of the captors, and free a number of hostages.
The Interior Minister said it was clear the terrorists, estimated at between 10 to 15 strong, were a multinational force, and that some of them were disguised as women.
62 people have already died after the Red Cross revised its figures down, and another 10 bodies were discovered this morning. 63 people are still missing. 175 people have been injured. The government had always said there would be no negotiation; indeed it appears the terrorists did not come to Kenya with that in mind.
In fact this assault is different to most that have gone before. Al-Shabaab came prepared for a long siege as opposed to a short sharp bloody attack. It seems their goal was to take control of an easily-defendable position with hostages to buy themselves the time to stage a propaganda coup. In a normal siege those surrounded are prisoners, ringed by security and only able to speak to those in authority. This group came prepared to wage propaganda war, continually tweeting via Twitter all throughout the siege to its supporters worldwide. It is the first known use of this social media in this way by terrorists.
Gunfire and explosions were heard on two occasions after dawn when the assault began, and ever since hunkered-down soldiers have been visible in the deserted, cordoned-off streets around the normally bustling Westgate, which is sealed off from the rest of the city. More explosions were heard in the mid-afternoon as the security forces punched a hole in the roof in a bid to outflank the terrorists.
A huge plume of smoke hung over the building for most of the afternoon, the result of al-Shabaab burning a pile of mattresses in an attempt to create a decoy.
Many have voiced concerns about Westgate’s vulnerability to such an attack, especially as al-Shabaab, angered at the Kenyan army’s intervention as part of an African Union force in Somalia where it has driven them out of many of their strongholds and inflicted serious military reverses on them, had previously warned they would strike at Westgate.
The complex is owned by a Jewish entrepreneur, and Kenya has special ties with Israel, although the Israelis today denied they had sent special forces to Kenya to assist, some three days after that fact was first reported. Westgate is the retail and social focal point for Nairobi’s wealthy, and foreigners living and working in the country, yet no special security measures appeared to be in place to prevent a determined assault.
A number of well-known people have died in the attack, including a nephew of Kenya’s president, a diplomat, a local radio personality, a renowned Peruvian public health specialist who was this week due to take up a post at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, and Ghana’s Professor Kofi Anwonoor, an acclaimed poet known across the African continent.
It has provoked a huge public response, with ordinary Kenyans donating hundreds of thousands of dollars for the victim’s families, and queuing in their hundreds in Uhuru stadium to give blood.
The crisis is the worst terrorist attack in Kenya since the al-Qaeda bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998, when 200 people died.