As darkness fell on the Kenyan capital Nairobi it appeared that the Westgate shopping mall siege was nearing an end.
The interior minister announced his forces had regained control of the entire five-storey building, killing three terrorists in the process and seriously wounding several others. 11 Kenyan soldiers were also hurt in the final assault, which began just after dawn on Monday and lasted all day. However gunfire was heard in some of the surrounding streets, suggesting some of the estimated 10 to 15-strong al-Shabaab group was trying to shoot its way out.
The beginning of the end of the three-day ordeal began promisingly; Kenyan troops were immediately able to free a number of people who had escaped al-Shabaab’s clutches by laying low, but confusion and panic was never far away. As the troops progressed slowly inside, their progress held up by the terrorists using their hostages as human shields, outside the waiting crowds were as jumpy as gazelles around a watering hole, at one point bolting for cover when it was thought a terrorist with a sniper rifle was on Westgate’s roof.
Then a rumour that more terrorists had joined the watching crowds to spread mayhem led to the army forcing people back, at one point using tear gas.
Several explosions then signalled the security forces’ punching a hole in the roof to outflank the terrorists, and a column of smoke hung over the building as al-Shabaab tried to create a diversion by burning mattresses.
One remarkable aspect of this attack was al-Shabaab’s use of Twitter to get its message out while it was in the eyes of the world’s media, the first known use of social media in this way.
Equally remarkable has been the Kenyan people’s response, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars for the victims’ families, and queuing in their hundreds to give blood.
But Kenya has paid a heavy price: 62 dead, and as many still missing. The repercussions for the country’s vital tourism industry are also likely to be devastating.
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