NAIROBI, Kenya – Kenyan security forces swept into an upscale shopping mall late Sunday to try to end a two-day standoff with heavily armed Islamist militants, after a gruesome attack that reflected the surprising resiliency of one of Africa’s most brutal insurgent groups.
Authorities later said that most hostages had been freed, but they provided few details. It appeared that at least some members of Somalia’s al-Shabab militia, which asserted responsibility for the attack, were still holed up early today in the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall, where they killed 68 people in the deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya in 15 years.
“Most of the hostages have been released, and the Kenya Defense Forces has taken control of most parts of the building,” a Kenyan military spokesman, Col. Cyrus Oguna, told the television station KTN, according to Reuters. He did say how many hostages had been held or freed.
Local news reports described several explosions late Sunday emanating from the mall, which has been cordoned off.
In a nationally televised news conference, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta declared that the siege would probably end soon.
“The criminals are now located in one place within the building. With the professionals on site, I assure Kenyans that we have as good a chance to successfully neutralize the terrorists as we can hope for,” he said. Kenyatta added that one of his nephews and his fiancee were among those killed.
The attack stunned Kenya, which has one of the continent’s biggest economies and has been a major hub for U.S. military and humanitarian activity in East Africa.
For the past two years, al-Shabab, which is linked to al-Qaida, has been considered by many U.S. officials and analysts to be all but defeated. The militia had lost much of the territory it once held in Somalia, including the capital, Mogadishu. It was pushed to the margins by a campaign that has involved U.S. Special Operations troops as well as African forces mobilized largely by Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Burundi.
But the well-organized assault on the mall that began around lunchtime Saturday upended the calculations of Kenyan and Western security officials. As of early today, the toll had risen to 68 dead and more than 175 injured, the Kenyan Red Cross said.
The attackers, who carried grenades and clutched machine guns and AK-47 assault rifles, had chosen a target popular with Westerners and wealthy Kenyans, a move sure to hurt the nation’s critical tourism industry and spread unease among the numerous Western aid agencies based in Nairobi.
The dead included numerous foreigners from Britain, France, Canada, Australia and other countries. Five American citizens were wounded, U.S. officials said.