|Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor, who was shot in the mall
Sept. 22: The masked gunman thrust his assault rifle into the face of the terrified shopper and demanded to know which religion he belonged to.
When the shopper said he was a Muslim, the terrorist asked him to name the Prophet Muhammad’s mother. He could not, so the gunman raised his rifle and shot him in the head, according to witnesses spared death because of their Islamic beliefs.
Such tales of horror were still emerging after militants from al Shabaab, a Somali Islamist group linked to al Qaida, stormed the Westgate mall in the heart of Nairobi on Saturday, killing at least 68 people and wounding 175, among them women and children as young as two.
Parents hurled their bodies over their children, and people jumped into ventilation shafts or huddled behind plastic mannequins as “10 to 15” militants ran floor to floor, shooting and bursting grenades.
Hours later, the mall’s gleaming floors were smeared with blood as police dashed through the corpse-strewn corridors, trying to find the assailants, who witnesses said included women.
Speculation is swirling that Samantha Lewthwaite, a British terror suspect last seen in Kenya, may be involved. The 29-year-old widow of Germain Lindsay, one of the suicide bombers who killed 52 people in London on July 7, 2005, is alleged to be linked to al Shabaab.
Late on Sunday night, the Kenyan forces launched “a major assault” to free the unspecified number of hostages being held by the militants in the mall. Earlier, soldiers were seen carrying into the mall a rocket-propelled grenade, an extremely heavy weapon for an indoor hostage situation.
The assailants were expected to fight to the death, though reports said one wounded gunman had been captured and died in hospital.
Al Shabaab said the assault was revenge for Kenya sending about 4,000 soldiers to neighbouring Somalia to flush out the group’s militants and threatened more violence. The attack could set back east Africa’s biggest economy that relies heavily on tourism revenues.
President Uhuru Kenyatta, whose nephew was reportedly killed in the shooting along with his fiancée, vowed to hunt down the perpetrators. He urged wealthy governments not to warn their citizens against visiting Kenya and insisted he would not pull his troops out of Somalia.
The five-storey Westgate mall, where people can buy expensive cups of frozen yogurt and plates of sushi, is a symbol of Kenya’s rising prosperity. It’s especially crowded on Saturdays, and there have been warnings that the Israeli-owned café on its ground floor made it a ripe target for terrorists,
Sources said a “handful” of Israeli “advisers” were helping Kenya formulate a strategy to end the siege but clarified that unlike the 2008 Mumbai attacks where a Jewish establishment was targeted, no Israeli was killed. “This time, the story is not about Israel,” an Israeli foreign ministry spokeswoman said.
The attack began at 12.30pm when militants wearing balaclavas and ammunition belts and carrying AK-47 and G-3 assault rifles leapt out of cars and entered the mall.
“They came and said: ‘If you are Muslim, stand up. We’ve come to rescue you’,” said Elijah Lamau, who escaped. Muslims were allowed to leave but the rest were rounded up and the men and women segregated before several were shot in the head.
“They (the terrorists) were not speaking Swahili. They spoke something that seemed like Arabic or Somali,” a survivor said.
Police helicopters circled above shortly afterwards as armed cops shouted: “Get out! Get out!” Scores of shoppers fled the sand-coloured stone building, crying mothers clutching their babies and some others with their arms raised. Some of the injured were ferried out in shopping trolleys.
The police warned people not to phone relatives trapped inside because the gunmen were shooting anyone whose mobile rang.
For hours, the dead were strewn around tables of unfinished meals. At one burger restaurant, a man and a woman lay in a final embrace before their bodies were removed. Pop music was left playing.
One woman emerged on Sunday morning after hiding under a car in the basement. She held one shoe and looked dazed, while making a frantic phone call to her husband who later met her.
Al Shabaab sent out a barrage of buoyant tweets, bragging about the prowess of its fighters, before Twitter abruptly suspended the account late Saturday. Later, a new one was set up.
The militant outfit, whose security and training chief is believed to be a Pakistani named Abu Musa Mombasa, used to control large parts of Somalia, often beheading civilians and burying teenage girls up to their necks in sand and stoning them to death.
But in the past two years, the African Union forces, including the Kenyans, have pushed al Shabaab out of most of its urban strongholds. The worry now is that this attack could be the start of a comeback.
Al Shabaab had earlier attacked churches, mosques and government outposts in Kenya but the latest strike has been its boldest yet. The biggest terror strike in Kenya has been a 1998 al Qaida truck bombing that nearly levelled the US embassy in Nairobi and killed more than 200 people.
Renowned Ghanaian poet and statesman Kofi Awoonor was among the dead. “I am shocked…. Such a sad twist of fate,” Ghana President John Mahama said.
Awoonor, 78, was killed while shopping with his son, who was injured. Awoonor was Ghana’s representative to the UN from 1990 to 1994.
His poetry was inspired by the oral tradition of the Ewe people, to which he belonged. He spent sometime in exile after his friend and Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah, was overthrown in a coup.
Also killed was popular radio host Ruhila Adatia-Sood, who was hosting a cooking competition in the mall’s parking lot.
Three Britons, two French citizens and two Canadians are believed killed, including a 29-year-old Canadian diplomat. Reports also mentioned a Dutch victim.
Nairobi’s mortuary superintendent said Africans, Asians and Caucasians were among the bodies brought to the morgue.