September 24, 2013

Mall attackers include Americans, Kenya says

The Kenyan Foreign Minister says 'two or three Americans' and 'one Brit' were among the militants.

By SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN The Washington Post

NAIROBI, Kenya — One of the Islamist militants wore a white turban, others black head scarves, witnesses said. Most were dressed in civilian clothes, but a few had donned camouflage fatigues. Some carried sophisticated machine guns, others wielded the AK-47 rifles widely used by African insurgents. Most of the extremists who seized the upscale mall in Nairobi were young and barked orders in English.

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Civilians who had been hiding inside during the gun battle manage to flee from the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013. Gunmen threw grenades and opened fire Saturday, killing at least 22 people in an attack targeting non-Muslims at an upscale mall in Kenya's capital that was hosting a children's day event, a Red Cross official and witnesses said. (AP Photo/Jonathan Kalan)

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By Monday evening, Kenyan security forces said they controlled much of the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall, although several militants from al-Shabab, a group allied with al-Qaida, appeared dug in, determined to fight to the death.

With the standoff apparently drawing to a close, there was a growing focus on the identity of the militants and how they could pull off a sophisticated assault that killed at least 62 people and keep security forces at bay for three days. Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed said "two or three Americans" and "one Brit" were among the militants in the attack.

She said in an interview Monday with "PBS Newshour" that the Americans were 18 to 19 years old, of Somali or Arab origin and lived "in Minnesota and one other place" in the United States. The British jihadist was a woman who has "done this many times before," Mohamed said.

U.S. officials said Monday that they were pressing to determine whether any of the assailants were American.

"But at this point we have no definitive evidence of the nationalities or identities of the perpetrators," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

Al-Shabab is a Somali militia. But Gen. Julius Karangi, chief of the Kenya Defense Forces, told reporters that the jihadists inside the mall were "clearly a multinational collection from all over the world" — though he did not offer details. "We are fighting global terrorism here," Karangi said.

On Monday, Kenyan security forces, assisted by American, European and Israeli advisers, intensified operations to end the crisis.

Police helicopters hovered over the mall. At midday, loud explosions and sporadic bursts of gunfire could be heard emanating from the shopping center. By the late afternoon, large plumes of smoke were rising from the area. A senior Interior Ministry official, Joseph Ole Lenku, said the militants had set fire to one of the shops in the mall, the Nakumatt supermarket, as a tactical diversion.

Many Kenyans have questioned why it has taken so long to end the siege. Senior Kenyan government officials have said that security forces were being cautious to avoid the deaths of innocent civilians. On Monday morning, a spokesman for al-Shabab reportedly threatened to execute hostages if security forces stormed the mall. "The mujahideen will kill the hostages if the enemies use force," Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage said in an audio statement posted online.

The death toll released by the government stood at 62 civilians, with more than 175 injured. It was the deadliest attack in Kenya since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. An earlier figure of 69 deaths, provided by the Kenyan Red Cross, was later revised downward. Sixty-three people were missing, according to the Red Cross, suggesting that the militants still held hostages inside the mall. Kenyan officials said 10 bodies had been pulled out of the mall over the previous 24 hours.

Al-Shabab has said the carnage was in retaliation for Kenya sending troops to fight in Somalia, where they remain a key defense for the Western-backed Mogadishu government against the militia.

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