A Kenyan army helicopter flies low near the Westgate mall in Nairobi. (AFP)
Nairobi, Sept. 23: Huge columns of black smoke poured out of the besieged mall in Nairobi this afternoon as Kenyan forces moved in for a major assault against heavily armed Islamist militants who stormed the mall on Saturday, slaughtering dozens of civilians and taking hostages.
It remained unclear how many gunmen and hostages were still cornered in the shopping centre of the Westgate mall, after a series of loud explosions and gunfire were followed by black smoke billowing from one part of the complex.
Kenya’s interior minister told a news conference that militants had set fire to mattresses in a supermarket on the mall’s lower floors. The ministry later said the blaze was under control. Two attackers had been killed today, the minister added. Another assailant had died on Saturday. The gunmen came from “all over the world”, Kenya’s military chief said, adding: “We are fighting global terrorism here.”
President Uhuru Kenyatta dismissed yesterday a demand that he pull Kenyan forces out of neighbouring Somalia.
Kenyatta, who lost one of his own nephews in Saturday’s bloodbath, said he would not relent in a “war on terror” in Somalia, where Kenyan troops have pushed al Shabaab onto the defensive over the past two years as part of an African Union-backed peacekeeping mission across the northern border.
Security officials near the mall said the explosions heard at lunchtime were caused by Kenyan forces blasting a way in, but interior minister Joseph Ole Lenku said he had no information on any blasts and a military spokesman declined to comment when asked if militants had set off charges. Al Shabaab warned it would kill hostages if police moved in.
Echoing other officials, who have highlighted successes in rescuing hundreds of trapped people after Saturday’s massacre, Ole Lenku said most of the complex was under the control of the authorities.
A senior police officer said the authorities, who have been receiving advice from western and Israeli experts, were “closing in”. Ole Lenku said: “We are doing anything reasonably possible, cautiously though, to bring this process to an end.
“The terrorists could be running and hiding in some stores, but all floors now are under our control.”
Ole Lenku said all the attackers were men, after witnesses had reported seeing women brandishing arms in the attack. But three sources, one an intelligence officer and two soldiers, told Reuters that one of the killed attackers was a white woman. This is likely to fuel speculation that she is the wanted widow of one of the suicide bombers who attacked London’s transport system in 2005.
Asked if it was Samantha Lewthwaite, called the “white widow” by the British press, the intelligence officer said: “We don’t know.” It remains unclear who the assailants are. Al Shabaab — the name means “The Lads” in Arabic — has thousands of Somali fighters but has also attracted foreigners to fight western and African Union efforts to establish a stable government.
A London man, Jermaine Grant, faces trial in Kenya for possession of explosives. Police suspect an al Shabaab plot to attack restaurants and hotels used by westerners and have been hunting for the “white widow” Lewthwaite.
The term “black widow” has been used by Chechen militants for women taking part in attacks after their husbands have died.
Kenya’s president, son of post-colonial leader Jomo Kenyatta, is facing his first major security challenge since being elected in March. The crisis might have an impact on his troubles with the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
Judges there let his vice-president, William Ruto, fly home for a week, suspending a trial today in which Ruto is charged with crimes against humanity for allegedly coordinating violence after an election in 2007.