On the third day of a bloody standoff with al-Shabab militants that has killed 62 people, the Kenyan government announced today that its military had freed nearly all the hostages at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi and had killed at least two militants.
There were still gunshots coming from the mall on Monday morning and black smoke rising—authorities said the militants were burning mattresses inside the building — on the third day of a standoff. Saturday the attackers threw hand grenades and began shooting indiscriminately at around lunchtime in the upscale mall, which draws as many as 10,000 shoppers on a normal weekend. It is especially popular among foreigners and wealthy Kenyans. Officials estimated the number of attackers as between 10 and 15.
Al-Shabab, a militant group based in Somalia, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Among the dead were famed Ghanaian poet Kofi Anwonoor, 78, an activist, professor and former Ghanaian ambassador to the United Nations. Anwonoor’s poem, “The Cathedral” has been required reading by a generation of Ghanaian schoolchildren about the dangers of imported religion.
Kenya’s Interior Secretary Ole Lenku said at a news conference that two al-Shabab militant fighters have been confirmed killed in the government raid at the mall and nearly all hostages have been freed.
“We don’t want to give you a definitive position on when we think the process will come to an end, but we are doing anything reasonably possible, cautiously though, to bring this process to an end,” he said.
Lenku said the militants included individuals from a number of nationalities and that some of them had been dressed as women—leading to inaccurate reports that there was at least one woman in the group.
“The priority is to save as many lives as possible,” Lenku told the AP after the attack, saying that about 1,000 people have been rescued since the standoff began.
At least three British nationals are among the dead, British Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed Sunday, while the French government confirmed that two of its citizens were killed in what President Francois Hollande described as a “cowardly attack.” An undisclosed number of Americans were injured. President Obama, whose father was born in Kenya, phoned Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on Sunday to express his condolences and pledge support for Kenya’s “efforts to bring the perpetrators of the attack to justice.”
Of the reported 175 who were wounded, the ages ranged from 2 to 78. Many of the victims were at a cooking competition when the attackers stormed in with automatic rifles and grenades, according to witnesses.
It is the first major security challenge since Kenyatta was elected in March. He said the government’s military forces were engaged in a “delicate operation.”
“Our top priority remains to safeguard the lives of innocent people held up in this unfortunate incident,” he said.