Relatives of Johnny Mutinda Musango, 48, weep after identifying his body at the city morgue in Nairobi on Sept. 24. Musango was one of the victims of the Westgate Mall hostage siege, which the country's president, Uhuru Kenyatta, said was under control in a televised address on Tuesday. (Jerome Delay/AP)
The militant group behind the four-day takeover of a Nairobi mall claim Kenyan government forces used explosives in carrying out "a demolition" of the building, burying 137 hostages.
In a Tweet Wednesday from an account believed to be genuine, al-Shabaab also claimed that "having failed to defeat the mujahideen inside the mall, the Kenyan govt disseminated chemical gases to end the siege."
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Government spokesman Manoah Esipisu immediately denied the claim, saying that no chemical weapons were used and that the official civilian death toll remains 61. He says three floors of the building collapsed after a fire started by the al-Shabaab attackers caused structural weakness.
Gunshots rang out from the upscale mall in Kenya's capital Wednesday morning, the day after the president declared an end to a four-day siege by Islamic militants.
Esipisu told The Associated Press the shots came from Kenyan forces going room to room in the large Westgate Mall, firing protectively before entering unknown territory.
"During sanitization once you take control of the place if you go to a room where you haven't visited before you shoot first to make sure you aren't walking into an ambush," he said. "But there hasn't been any gunfire from the terrorists for more than 36 hours."
But a top security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, said even around the time President Uhuru Kenyatta told the nation in a televised address that "we have ashamed and defeated our attackers" on Tuesday night, three shots rang out at the mall.
He said Kenyan authorities are still trying to determine where those shots came from.
Meanwhile, the Kenyan government said forensic experts from the United States, Britain and Israel would be assisting them in their investigation of the attack.
"The mall is sealed off, it is a crime scene," Esipisu said.
The process of retrieving bodies from inside the mall still had not begun Wednesday morning — possibly indicating that the situation was not yet considered secure — though a city morgue official said his workers were preparing to go into the building soon.
The attack claimed by Somali militant group al-Shabaab killed at least 61 civilians, six security officers and five extremists, the president said. Three floors of the mall collapsed, and at least one more militant's body is believed to be buried in the rubble. Officials said the death count will likely rise. Estimates varied between only a few bodies to dozens of bodies possibly still inside the mall.
Another 175 people were injured, including more than 60 who remain hospitalized.
Fears persisted that some of the attackers could still be alive and loose inside the rubble of the mall, a vast complex that had shops for retailers like Bose, Nike and Adidas, as well as banks, restaurants and a casino.
A high-ranking security official involved in the investigations said it would take time to search the whole mall before declaring that the terrorist threat had been crushed. That official insisted on anonymity in order to discuss information not publicly disclosed.
Kenyatta declared three days of national mourning beginning on Wednesday.
Eleven other suspects have been taken into custody, but Esipisu would not comment on what information they may have given to authorities.
"At this at this point the interrogations are ongoing and I can't reveal any of the details, "he said.
Al-Shabaab, whose name means "The Youth" in Arabic, first began threatening Kenya with a major terror attack in late 2011, after Kenya sent troops into Somalia following a spate of kidnappings of Westerners inside Kenya.
The al-Shabaab extremists stormed the mall on Saturday, throwing grenades and firing on civilians.
The group used Twitter throughout the four-day siege to say that Somalis have been suffering at the hands of Kenyan military operations in Kenya, and the mall attack was revenge.
"You could have avoided all this and lived your lives with relative safety," the group Tweeted Tuesday. "Remove your forces from our country and peace will come."
The militants specifically targeted non-Muslims, and at least 18 foreigners were among the dead, including six Britons, as well as citizens from France, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Peru, India, Ghana, South Africa and China. Five Americans were among the wounded.
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