Kenya forces battle to end deadly mall siege
Posted Sunday, September 22 2013 at 18:51
Kenyan troops launched an assault Sunday to end a terrifying siege by Somali militants holding hostages inside a shopping mall, with police warning the death toll of 68 people could rise "much higher".
Shortly after night fell with the siege well into its second day, teams backed by Israeli agents moved in to end the bloodbath at the upmarket Westgate complex.
"Godspeed to our guys in the Westgate building," Kenya's National Disaster Operation Centre said in a message on its Twitter site. "Major engagement ongoing."
The disaster centre, which said the assault "will end tonight" reported "sporadic gunfire" as the troops battled the remaining attackers, while an AFP reporter outside the mall heard a loud explosion as helicopters flew overhead.
"The criminals are now all located in one place within the building... We have as good a chance to successfully neutralise the terrorists as we can hope for," Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a speech to the nation.
Kenyatta, who called for patience, said he had received "numerous offers of assistance from friendly countries" but that for now it remained a Kenyan operation.
However, a Kenyan security source confirmed that Israelis "are rescuing the hostages and the injured". The Israeli foreign ministry refused to confirm or deny its agents were involved.
Terrified witnesses recounted scenes of horror as the masked gunmen tossed grenades and sprayed automatic gunfire in the packed centre in a brazen attack around midday on Saturday, sending panicked shoppers fleeing for their lives.
Officials have estimated some 200 people have been wounded in the more than 30-hour-siege.
But police sources who had entered the building on Sunday evening said they feared that death toll "could be much, much higher... judging from the bodies sighted inside," reporting that the attackers continued to fight back.
Nine bodies were taken out the centre shortly after troops went in, updating an earlier toll of 59.
Somalia's Al Qaeda-inspired Shebab rebels said the carnage at the partly Israeli-owned complex was in retaliation for Kenya's military intervention in Somalia, where African Union troops are battling the Islamists.
"They shall not get away with their despicable and beastly acts," Kenyatta said in an emotional speech. "We will punish the masterminds swiftly, and indeed very painfully."
More than 1,000 people have been rescued, but between 10 to 15 attackers -- reportedly both men and women -- are holding out in the multi-storey complex "as well as many unarmed, badly shaken, innocent civilians", Kenyatta said.
Kenyatta said a nephew and his fiancee were among those killed during the sometimes ferocious gun battles.