Kenya Claims Upper Hand In Mall Hostage Crisis

By: CBS/AP (Posted by Melissa Brunner)
By: CBS/AP (Posted by Melissa Brunner)

NAIROBI, Kenya (CBS/AP) Kenya's Interior Ministry said early Tuesday it was "in control" of a shopping center besieged by al-Qaeda-linked terrorists two days after the upscale mall was seized by members of a Somali terrorist group that invaded with guns blazing, killing at least 62 people.

The ministry made the announcement via its Twitter feed, adding that security forces were still combing the mall floor by floor looking for people but that it believed "all hostages have been released."

Earlier Monday, four thunderous explosions reverberated through the Nairobi neighborhood of the Westgate Mall attacked by al-Shabab, a Somali armed Islamic group linked with al-Qaeda.

Three attackers had been killed in the fighting Monday, officials said, and more than 10 suspects arrested. Eleven Kenyan soldiers were wounded in the running gun battles. By evening, Kenyan security officials were claiming the upper hand.

Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku also revised the death toll to 62. Kenyan officials earlier said 59 people have died since the siege on Westgate Mall began on Saturday, while the Red Cross had put the toll at 68, then in a tweet lowered it to 62, saying some bodies had been counted twice.

Earlier Monday, following hours of sporadic clashes, a CBS News team positioned near the mall reported a heavy exchange of gunfire, several loud explosions and then thick black smoke emerging from within the complex. Lenku, the interior minister, said at his news conference that the smoke was due to the militants burning mattresses inside the mall.

Kenya Chief of Defense forces Gen. Julius Karangi said fighters from an array of nations participated in the attack claimed by al-Shabab.

"We have an idea who these people are and they are clearly a multinational collection from all over the world," he said.

Karangi said Kenyan forces were in charge of all floors inside the mall, though terrorists could still be hiding inside. Earlier witness reports had indicated that a woman was among the estimated 10 to 15 attackers. Lenku said that instead some male attackers had dressed up like women.

The four explosions were followed by volleys of gunfire, then a thick, dark column of smoke that burned for roughly 90 minutes. Military and police helicopters and one plane circled over the Nairobi mall, giving the upscale neighborhood the feel of a war zone.

On Sunday Kenyan officials announced that "most" hostages had been rescued. But no numbers were given. Kenyan officials have never said how many hostages they thought the attackers had, but have said preserving the hostages' lives is a top priority.

Kenyans and foreigners were among those confirmed dead, including British, French, Canadians, Indians, a Ghanaian, a South African and a Chinese woman. The U.K. Foreign Office said Monday it has confirmed the deaths of four British nationals. At least five Americans were confirmed to have been injured in the attack.

From neighboring Somalia, spokesman Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage for al-Shabab - the militant group that claimed responsibility for the attack - said in an audio file posted on a website that the hostage takers had been ordered to "take punitive action against the hostages" if force was used to try to rescue them.

"Israelis and Kenyan forces have tried to enter Westgate (mall) by force but they could not, the mujahideen (fighters) will kill the hostages if the enemies use force," a man identifying himself as Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage said in the clip, according to the Reuters news agency. CBS News could not independently verify the authenticity of the audio statement, but it was posted on a website often used by the Somali terror group.

Israeli officials confirmed it has sent advisers to assist in the operation. While officials refuse to discuss the precise nature of the assistance, Israeli leaders have made it clear they believe the defeat of the al Qaeda militants behind the mall attack will have great meaning around the world.

"Israel is always ready to help other countries, other friendly countries, in combating terrorism. I think that terrorism has become a threat to the entire world and therefore countries - United States, Israel and other Western countries - should cooperate," Yuval Steinitz, Israel's cabinet minister for strategic affairs, told The Associated Press.

CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata arrived Monday morning to Nairobi and said the city was tense. Even staff at the hotel in the capital city were taking additional precautions, searching bags and scrutinizing visitors more carefully than normal. Security forces had established a roughly 200 yard perimeter around the Westgate mall. Helicopters hovered overhead.

At the Oshwal Centre next to the mall, the Red Cross was using a squat concrete structure that houses a Hindu temple as a triage center. Medical workers attended to at least two wounded Kenyan soldiers there on Monday.

As the crisis surpassed the 48-hour mark, video taken by someone inside the mall's main department store when the assault began emerged. The video showed frightened and unsure shoppers crouching as long and loud volleys of gunfire could be heard.

Al-Shabab extremists stormed the mall on Saturday from two sides, throwing grenades and firing on civilians.

Kenya's Red Cross said in a statement, citing police, that 49 people had been reported missing.

Al-Shabab said the attack, targeting non-Muslims, was in retribution for Kenyan forces' 2011 push into neighboring Somalia.

Al-Shabab is an extremist Islamic terrorist force that grew out of the anarchy that crippled Somalia after warlords ousted a longtime dictator in 1991. Its name means "The Youth" in Arabic, and it was a splinter youth wing of a weak Islamic Courts Union government created in 2006 to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state in the East African nation.

Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said in a speech at Ohio State University on Monday that al-Shabab is a global threat.

"Today, there are clear evidences that Shabab is not a threat to Somalia and Somali people only," Mohamud said in a speech at Ohio State University. "They are a threat to the continent of Africa, and the world at large."

Al-Shabab is estimated to have several thousand fighters, including a few hundred foreign fighters. Some of the insurgents' foreign fighters are from the Middle East with experience in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Others are young, raw recruits from Somali communities in the United States and Europe.

While known to have links to al Qaeda, al-Shabab has for years been focused on carrying out attacks primarily inside Somalia. There have been suggestions of divisions among the organization's leadership causing tension, and it has not typically been considered the greatest threat to U.S. interests -- certainly not in comparison to the Yemen-based al Qaeda franchise al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Last week, however, new information surfaced in the form of a document filed in a court case in New York's Eastern District, alleging that al-Shabab is or was operating a "research and development department" aimed at producing chemical weapons.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, whose nephew and fiancee were killed in the mall attack, reiterated his government's determination to continue fighting al-Shabab.

"We went as a nation into Somalia to help stabilize the country and most importantly to fight terror that had been unleashed on Kenya and the world," said Kenyatta."We shall not relent on the war on terror."

President Obama said the United States stands with Kenya against the "terrible outrage" of a shopping mall terrorist attack.

Mr. Obama says the United States is providing assistance and all the help it can to deal with the tragedy.

"We will provide them with whatever law enforcement support that is necessary, and we are confident that Kenya, which has been a pillar of stability in eastern Africa will rebuild," Mr. Obama said.

© 2013 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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