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)
Gunfire and periodic explosions rang out from Nairobi's Westgate mall all afternoon as security forces battled militants who had taken hostages and holed up in the upscale shopping centre, but by evening authorities were saying they had taken control and the four-day standoff was all but over.
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Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta announced Tuesday night that five militants were killed in the operation and 11 were captured, while 61 civilians and six members of the country's police and armed forces had died since the attack began on Saturday.
Three floors of the mall collapsed and several bodies were trapped in the rubble, said Kenyatta. His office later said a terrorist's body was among those in the debris.
Kenya has "ashamed and defeated" its attackers, the president said in declaring three days of national mourning, to begin Wednesday.
The Somali-based militant group al-Shabaab, which swears loyalty to al-Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for the attack. The group said it's revenge for Kenya's 2011 military push into neighbouring Somalia, where African Union forces pushed al-Shabaab out of the capital in 2011 as part of an effort to re-establish control for Somalia's fledgling government.
Normally defiant on its Twitter feed since its fighters stormed the mall on Saturday with automatic rifles and grenades, al-Shabaab was silent Tuesday evening following Kenyatta's declaration. Two hours before, it had tweeted that the Kenyan government didn't have "the faintest idea of what's going on" in the mall, and promised Kenyans were in for a "big surprise," the group said.
Two Kenyan soldiers who had recently been inside the mall told The Associated Press shortly before the president spoke that the operation was effectively finished, although security forces were still combing the facility and had not definitively cleared all the rooms inside. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were under orders not to speak to the media.
It wasn't the first time Kenyan authorities had said they had vanquished the militants.
"Yesterday the government had said that it had all but ended the siege that was going on at the Westgate Mall," CBC News reporter Nahlah Ayed said from outside the shopping centre. "And yet this morning, we woke up to more gunfire."
It wasn't immediately clear whether the 16 attackers referred to by the Kenyan president represented all of them, or if there were more potentially hiding out in the mall. There was also speculation about where they were from. Somalia-based Al-Shabaab is thought to number around 6,000 fighters in total, including dozens of Canadians and Americans.
On Monday night, Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed told U.S. public broadcaster PBS that the attackers included "two or three Americans" and "one Brit."
By Nahlah Ayed,
Kenyans have been shocked by the events of the past few days, by the losses surely, but also by the fact that they had come under attack by foreigners.
Nairobi was the scene of one of al-Qaeda’s first large-scale attacks when the U.S. Embassy was bombed in 1998.
But since then, Kenyans say, most violence here has happened among Kenyans.
Otherwise, this is a relatively stable African country whose economy depends heavily on tourism. That explains the number of times Kenyans have asked the CBC during interviews to communicate to Westerners that they should not give up on their country.
In his statement announcing an end to the siege, President Uhuru Kenyatta sent the same message. “Terrorism is a global problem that requires global solutions. I ask our friends to stand with us,” he said.
Nahlah Ayed is in Nairobi, Kenya.
She said the Americans were 18 to 19 years old, of Somali or Arab origin, and lived "in Minnesota and one other place" in the United States. The attacker from Britain was a woman who has "done this many times before," Mohamed said.
That stoked reports of possible involvement by British citizen Samantha Lewthwaite, known as the "white widow," whose late husband, Germaine Lindsay, was among the perpetrators of the July 7, 2005, transit bombings in London.
Lewthwaite, who left Britain in 2009, has previously been charged by Kenyan authorities as part of alleged bomb plot, and is also suspected of links to a group that set off grenades in a bar in the coastal city of Mombasa during the Euro 2012 soccer tournament.
U.S. officials said they were looking into whether any Americans were involved.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that the department had "no definitive evidence of the nationalities or the identities" of the attackers.
Britain's Foreign Office said it was aware of the Kenyan foreign minister's remarks, but would not confirm if a British woman was involved.
Al-Shabaab has rejected suggestions that foreigners were involved.
"We have communicated with our mujahideen [fighters] in Westgate," the group's media office told the Reuters news agency. "Those who describe the attackers as Americans and British are people who do not know what is going on in Westgate building."
The militants who attacked shoppers in the upscale mall specifically targeted non-Muslims, and at least 18 foreigners were among the dead, including six Britons and citizens from Peru, France, India, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Ghana, South Africa and China.
Canadian officials have also confirmed that at least two Canadian citizens were among those injured in the attack.
John Babcock said Monday that consular officials had been in contact with the families and continue to provide assistance as required.
"For privacy reasons, we are not able to release any further details," Babcock said in an email.
A Minnesota woman identified the injured Canadians as her nieces Fardosa Abdi, 17, and Dheman Abdi, 16. She told The Associated Press that the girls were shopping when the siege started.
She said Fardosa is in critical condition after undergoing two surgeries for severe leg injuries, while Dheman had a bullet break her leg and an explosion injure her arm. Hassan said the teens are Canadian citizens who moved three years ago to Nairobi, where their father has a real estate business.
One of the dead Canadians is Annemarie Desloges, 29, a diplomat who worked at the Canadian High Commission in Nairobi. Desloges was previously posted in Delhi and was shopping at the mall Saturday while off-duty when the militants attacked.
Desloges worked for Citizenship and Immigration Canada as a liaison officer with the Canada Border Services Agency, the federal government said. She became a civil servant in 2006, then joined the foreign service in 2008.
Another Canadian who died in the attack at the upmarket shopping centre has been identified by Vancouver-area family members as businessman Naguib Damji.