NAIROBI, Kenya – Kenyan security forces battled al-Qaida-linked terrorists in an upscale mall for a third day Monday in what they said was a final push to rescue the lasts few hostages in a siege that has left at least 62 people dead.
While the government announced Sunday that most hostages had been released, a security expert with contacts inside the mall said at least 10 were still being held by a band of attackers described as “a multinational collection from all over the world.”
The expert said many hostages had been freed or escaped in the previous 24 to 36 hours, including some who were in hiding.
But there were at least 30 hostages when the assault by al-Shabab militants began Saturday, he said, and “it’s clear” that Kenyan security officials “haven’t cleared the building fully.”
Flames and dark plumes of smoke rose Monday above the Westgate shopping complex for more than an hour after four large explosions rocked the surrounding neighborhood. The smoke was pouring through a large skylight inside the mall’s main department and grocery store, where mattresses and other flammable goods appeared to have been set on fire, a person with knowledge of the rescue operation told The Associated Press.
The explosions were followed by volleys of gunfire as police helicopters and a military jet circled overhead, giving the neighborhood the feel of a war zone.
By evening, Kenyan security officials claimed the upper hand. “Taken control of all the floors. We’re not here to feed the attackers with pastries but to finish and punish them,” Police Inspector General David Kimaiyo said on Twitter.
Kenya’s Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku said the evacuation of hostages had gone “very, very well” and that Kenyan officials were “very certain” that few, if any, hostages were left in the building.
But with the mall cordoned off and under heavy security, it was not possible to independently verify the assertions. Similar claims of a quick resolution were made by Kenyan officials on Sunday, but the siege continued. Authorities have also not provided any details on how many hostages were freed or how many still remain captive.
Three attackers were killed in the fighting Monday, Kenyan authorities said, and more than 10 suspects arrested. Eleven Kenyan soldiers were wounded in the running gun battles.