Seeking to end a siege that has left scores dead, the Kenyan government said Sunday night that it was pressing an assault against al-Shabab militant attackers who had been holed up in a Nairobi shopping mall for more than a day.
Late Sunday, the Kenyan military announced that it had retaken “most” of the Westgate mall — the attackers had been confined to the third floor since their initial assault on Saturday — and freed more hostages, although details could not be confirmed.
Also unconfirmed was a claim, allegedly by al-Shabab, that a Kansas City man was among the attackers. The man’s name was listed Sunday along with names of eight other attackers on a Twitter site that was later suspended.
On Sunday night, helicopters circled the mall building, and occasional explosions and bursts of gunfire were heard above a rainstorm.
“This will end tonight — our forces will prevail,” the police command center said in a Twitter post. “Kenyans are standing firm against aggression, and we will win.”
Al-Shabab, a militant group mainly based in neighboring Somalia, answered with messages including a warning that “Kenyan forces who’ve just attempted a roof landing must know that they are jeopardizing the lives of all the hostages at #Westgate.”
Later, officials said that at least four members of the security forces had been wounded. But there were no other details about additional casualties on either side.
The attack on the mall deeply distressed Kenya, a nation that has grown in stature as a force against terrorism in East Africa. As the toll mounted –– at least 68 were reported dead by late Sunday, with several people still unaccounted for — the potential for even greater loss of life seemed tangible.
Addressing the nation, President Uhuru Kenyatta sounded a note of solidarity in loss, revealing that his nephew and the man’s fiancee were among the dead. “These are young, lovely people I personally knew and loved,” Kenyatta said. “Many of us have lost loved ones. Let us mourn them all as one nation and keep them always in remembrance and prayer.”
He said security forces had rescued more than 1,000 people from the mall since the violence began Saturday. He asked for patience from the public as the standoff continued.
The assault on Westgate was the deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya since the 1998 al-Qaida truck bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi that killed more than 200 people.
President Barack Obama called Kenyatta on Sunday to reaffirm the “strong and historic partnership between the United States and Kenya.” That relationship has been strained by the election in March of Kenyatta, who is being prosecuted at the International Criminal Court on charges of financing death squads during an outbreak of political violence in 2007. Obama skipped visiting Kenya, his father’s birthplace, on his trip to Africa in late June.
Al-Shabab has said that they staged the mall attack as retribution for the Kenyan military presence in Somalia, where Kenyan troops have driven al-Shabab fighters out of much of the territory they once controlled. A confidential U.N. security report described the assault on the mall as two-pronged, with groups of gunmen attacking on different floors simultaneously.
Joseph Ole Lenku, the Cabinet secretary for the interior, said 10 to 15 attackers were inside the mall.
The number of bystanders remaining in the building was not as clear. The Kenya Red Cross, citing the police as its source, said Sunday that 49 people were unaccounted for, raising the prospect of a significantly higher death toll.
An American official said that the FBI had offered assistance to the Kenyan authorities and that FBI agents were at the Kenyan command post at the scene. There were reports that Israelis were supporting the Kenyan authorities as well; a spokeswoman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry said she could not comment.
Kenyatta said that he had received “numerous offers of assistance from friendly countries; for the time being, however, this remains an operation of the Kenyan security agencies.”
Among those killed in the mall were three Britons, the British Foreign Office confirmed Sunday. Five Americans were among the wounded, but none was known to have been killed. News agencies reported that other foreigners were among the dead.
As the identities of victims began to emerge Sunday, the public mourning began.
One of those killed was Ruhila Adatia-Sood, a popular Kenyan radio host who was in the parking lot of the mall hosting a cooking competition, according to reports. She posted several photos on her Instagram account before the attack.
Also among the dead was Kofi Awoonor, 78, a Ghanaian poet and former professor at the University of Ghana.
Hundreds of relatives and friends of people who were in the mall went to hospitals that were treating the wounded, trying to ascertain the fate of their loved ones.
At the M P Shah Hospital a few miles from the mall, distressed relatives milled around a tent erected for them outside the building, as volunteers worked to assist them.
About midday Sunday, Kansas City time, a Twitter site listed the names of nine terrorists involved in the attack, including a 27-year-old Kansas City man. Two other names from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area were listed.
The names supposedly were posted by Al-Shabab, but the names and the reliability of the post were not confirmed Sunday.
The New York Times reported that a senior law enforcement official in the United States said the FBI had yet to establish whether that claim was true and that it would be difficult to do so until all the attackers were captured or killed.
A quick check in local Somalian communities found that no one knew the Kansas City name on either side of the state line. Said Abdullahi Kerow, who runs the Somali Bantu Foundation in Kansas City, Kan.: “I know all of the families in Kansas City, Kan., and that name is not one of our families.”
At Northeast’s Maple Park as two Somalian soccer teams were about to begin a game, Osman Issee, the coach of the United Boys, also shook his head. “We all have nicknames as well, so often no one really knows the real name,” he said.
Fareed, a devout Muslim at the Masjid Al-Taqwa mosque, listened carefully and wrote the name down. He will ask others, he promised, but he also worried about reactions against Muslims in Kansas City.
“We want to help,” he said. “This is a horrible thing that these terrorists are doing. They are full of hate. They are not us.”