By Jason Straziuso - The Associated Press
NAIROBI, Kenya – Hostages being held by al-Qaida-linked terrorists in a Nairobi mall have not been released despite an earlier statement from the military that “most” had been rescued, a person connected to the situation told The Associated Press on Monday.
© AP/Ben Curtis
Soldiers from the Kenya Defense Forces walk out, following the sound of explosions and gunfire, from the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, on Sept. 22.
Military helicopters circled over the mall at daybreak, when about five minutes of sustained gunfire broke out inside the Westgate mall, a clear indication that at least one of the estimated 10 to 15 gunmen who attacked the mall when it was filled with shoppers Saturday was still on the loose. More gunfire rang out later, much as it did throughout the day on Sunday. A military ambulance then sped away from the scene.
Late on Sunday a military spokesman said that “most” of the hostages had been released. But a person with knowledge of the rescue operation told AP that no hostages had been released or rescued overnight. The person insisted on anonymity in order to talk about the rescue response.
Another indication no hostages had been freed: None appeared at the Oshwal Centre, a squat concrete structure that houses a Hindu temple just next to the mall that the Red Cross is using as a triage centre. Medical workers attended to at least two wounded Kenyan soldiers there on Monday.
From Somalia, spokesman Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage for al-Shabab — the militant group that claimed responsibility for the attack — said in an audio file posted on a website that the hostage takers had been ordered to “take punitive action against the hostages” if force was used to try to rescue them.
Al-Shabab militants reacted angrily on Sunday to the helicopters hovering over the mall, and warned on Twitter that the Kenyan military action was endangering hostages.
A large military assault began on the mall shortly before sundown on Sunday, with one helicopter skimming very close to the roof of the shopping complex as a loud explosion rang out, far larger than any previous grenade blast or gunfire volley. Officials said the siege would soon end and said “most” hostages had been rescued and that officials controlled “most” of the mall.
But officials never said how many hostages had been rescued, and Kenya’s military spokesman on Monday was still not able to provide clear details.
“We are yet to get confirmation from what’s happening in the building,” Col. Cyrus Oguna told AP.
Late on Sunday, Kenya’s National Disaster Operation Centre said on Twitter that “this will end tonight. Our forces will prevail.”
Oguna had said that many of the rescued hostages — whom he said were mostly adults — were suffering from dehydration.
As the crisis neared the 48-hour mark, video taken by someone inside the mall’s main department store when the assault began emerged. The video showed frightened and unsure shoppers crouching as long and loud volleys of gunfire could be heard.
The assault by Kenyan forces came about 30 hours after al-Shabab extremists stormed the mall Saturday from two sides, throwing grenades and firing on civilians.
Kenyan authorities said they would do their utmost to save hostages’ lives, but no officials could say precisely how many people were being held captive. Kenya’s Red Cross said in a statement, citing police, that 49 people had been reported missing. Officials did not make an explicit link but that number could give an indication of the number of people held captive.
Kenya’s Red Cross said the death toll rose to 68 after nine bodies were recovered Sunday. More than 175 people were injured, including many children, Kenyan officials said.
Somalia’s al-Qaida-linked rebel group, al-Shabab, said the attack, targeting non-Muslims, was in retribution for Kenyan forces’ 2011 push into neighbouring Somalia.
Associated Press reporters Rodney Muhumuza in Nairobi, Kenya and Abdi Guled in Mogadishu, Somalia contributed to this report.