NAIROBI (Reuters) – Kenya said its security forces were in control of most of the Nairobi shopping mall where at least 68 people were killed by Somali al Shabaab Islamists, but gunmen still appeared to be holding hostages as the siege entered its third day today.
Referring to an operation under way since early yesterday, following the storming of the upmarket Westgate mall at lunchtime the previous day, a military spokesman said most of those who had been in the complex were now free.
He made no mention of killing or capturing militants but said commanders hoped to end the operation “very, very soon”. Reuters journalists outside the mall heard only very occasional gunfire and an explosion. There was no clear word on the fate of people said to be held by a dozen or so gunmen in a supermarket.
Al Shabaab in Somalia said its fighters were demanding Kenya pull out troops from its northern neighbour, where they have put the al Qaeda-affiliated group on the defensive in the past two years.
“Most of the hostages have been released, and the Kenya Defence Forces has taken control of most parts of the building,” Colonel Cyrus Oguna told local station KTN, giving no details. He told Britain’s Sky News late yesterday: “A large number of hostages have been rescued since this morning.”
Earlier, as people continued to emerge from hiding while troops and police moved to secure the sprawling complex, officials said concern now focused on a large supermarket where Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said 10 to 15 guerrillas, some possibly women, were holding an unspecified number of people.
Kenyatta declined to comment on whether captives there had been wired up to explosives.
Survivors’ tales of Saturday’s military-style, lunchtime assault by squads of gunmen hurling grenades and spraying automatic fire, left little doubt the hostage-takers are willing to kill. Previous such raids around the world suggest they may also be ready to die with their captives.
Military spokesman Oguna said the government’s position was clear: “We will not negotiate with terrorists.”
It was unclear how many may be held by the guerrillas barricaded in the supermarket. A Kenyan TV station said it might be 30. A number of escapes yesterday, by survivors who had spent up to a full day hiding in terror, suggested some people may be trapped but not captive.
Kenyatta, who himself lost a nephew in the killing, vowed to hold firm in what he called the “war on terror” in Somalia and said, cautiously, that Kenyan forces could end the siege.