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Kenya’s President Says Mall Attackers Are ‘Defeated’

Source:By NICHOLAS KULISH and JEFFREY GETTLEMAN of NY Times

NAIROBI, Kenya — Claiming to have “ashamed and defeated our attackers,” President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya on Tuesday declared victory over the Islamist militants who stormed into a crowded Nairobi shopping mall and killed dozens of civilians.

In a national address, Mr. Kenyatta declared three days of mourning, saying that 61 civilians and six members of Kenya’s security forces had died in the effort to retake the mall. He added that “five terrorists were killed with gunfire” and that 11 suspects were in custody.

“These cowards will meet justice, as will their accomplices and patrons wherever they are,” he said. “Kenya endured. Kenya endures.”

For days, the Kenyan government has been saying that the mall was under its control, only for fighting to resume shortly thereafter. Earlier on Tuesday, the Somalia-based Shabab militant group, which has taken responsibility for the attack, said in a message on a Twitter account linked with it that some hostages were still alive and that its fighters remained at large in the complex. The fighters, the Shabab said, were “still holding their ground.”

Western security officials also fear that several of the assailants dropped their guns and slipped out of the mall with the fleeing civilians and remain on the loose. Even the death toll may rise sharply. The Kenya Red Cross said Tuesday that more than 50 people were still missing.

Mr. Kenyatta said that forensic experts would examine the corpses of the assailants to determine their identities, softening earlier assertions by Kenya’s foreign minister that Americans and a Briton were involved in the siege.

“Intelligence reports had suggested that a British woman and two or three American citizens may have been involved in the attack,” the president said. “We cannot confirm the details at present but forensic experts are working to ascertain the nationalities of the terrorists.”

He said that three floors of the mall had collapsed and that there were several bodies still trapped underneath the rubble, including those of terrorists.

Hours before Mr. Kenyatta’s address, the rattle of automatic weapons fire continued intermittently on Tuesday morning, and smoke continued to pour out of the mall, seeming to contradict earlier accounts by Kenyan officials, issued late on Monday, that the crisis was nearing an end.

The exchanges on the ground were mirrored in a parallel clash of Twitter feeds, with the government and the militants advancing their conflicting versions of what was happening within the sealed-off confines of the mall.

“We’re in control of Westgate,” Kenya’s Interior Ministry said in a Twitter message late Monday, referring to the large mall — an emblem of modernity and prosperity frequented by middle-class Kenyans and foreigners — that Islamist militants stormed on Saturday.

“We believe all hostages have been released,” the Kenya National Disaster Operation Center said in a Twitter message. “Special forces and KDF soldiers combing the building. Situation of hostiles to be confirmed.”

Throughout the four-day siege, Kenyan forces struggled to vanquish the attackers, who, after killing shoppers, holed up in various corners of the Westgate mall with military-grade weaponry. Hundreds of elite Kenyan troops — backed by armored personnel carriers, helicopters, planes and security officials from Britain, France, Israel and the United States — were deployed, but the militants refused to surrender.

Kenyan officials have repeatedly tried to reassure the country — and the world — that they are bringing the crisis under control, mindful of the damage to the nation’s image as a cornerstone of stability in an often turbulent region.

“This will end tonight,” Kenyan officials declared as a major rescue operation got under way on Sunday evening. But shortly thereafter, three Kenyan commandos were shot and killed at close range and several hostages were killed as Kenyan forces tried to move in on militants hiding in a dark corner of the mall, Western officials said.

Kenya is a crucial American partner, its security forces working closely with their Western counterparts to contain Islamist militants in the region. Now Kenya’s capital, considered an oasis of prosperity in this part of Africa and an important base for Western embassies and businesses, has become a battleground in the conflict, and there is growing concern that this attack will not be the last.

Several witnesses said some of the ringleaders of the assault — in which masked gunmen moved methodically through the crowded mall on Saturday, killing men, women and children — might have escaped during the initial confusion. One witness said one assailant quickly tore off his clothes and changed into a new outfit before running out, hands raised, blending in with a crowd of fleeing civilians.

Security officials in Nairobi said two other militants, both women who appeared to be directing other assailants during the killings, also managed to escape after the initial stage of the attack, raising fears that well-trained terrorists could be on the loose in Nairobi. Several witnesses have said some of the militants were clearly not African and may have been from Western countries.

Kenya’s security forces seem to have been ill-prepared for a complex hostage situation against die-hard militants like this. According to several Western officials, the Kenyans initially rebuffed offers of assistance from the American government and turned instead to the Israelis, who dispatched advisers from the Israeli Defense Force. Those advisers have been working closely with the Kenyan commandos inside the mall, helping plan specific tactical operations, though officials said the Israeli advisers had not engaged in any combat and had stayed out of public view.

The American, French and British officials have been left with a more back-seat role from a command center just down the street from the mall, helping the Kenyans with the investigation of the attack and some intelligence matters, a high-ranking Kenyan official said Monday.

“There’s too much consultation going on,” said the Kenyan official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “This should have been a small rescue operation, not preparing for war.”

On Monday afternoon, Kenyan security officials acknowledged that the effort to end the standoff had taken longer than expected, though they offered a different account of their setbacks, saying that about 10 Kenyan soldiers had been injured but none killed.

The Shabab, a brutal Somali extremist group that had at least 20 fighters from the United States in 2010, many of them young Somali-Americans from a gritty part of Minneapolis, has said the attack was revenge for Kenya’s military incursion into Somalia, which began in 2011 when Kenya sent thousands of troops across the border to push back the Shabab.

Three years ago, the group also claimed credit for the coordinated bombings that killed more than 70 people in Uganda as crowds gathered to watch the World Cup, calling it retribution for Uganda’s decision to send troops to Somalia as part of the African Union’s effort to stabilize the country.

But the possible presence of militants from outside Africa in the mall attack — and the way the assailants fended off attempts to dislodge them — has raised questions about the Shabab’s latest claims. Some Western security officials are beginning to wonder if other terrorist groups may be involved.

“This whole thing seems more advanced than anything the Shabab has ever done,” said one Western security official, who asked not to be identified because the operations were still continuing.

Julius Karangi, chief of the Kenyan general staff, said, “They are clearly a multinational collection from all over the world.”

The attack killed people from many countries, including Britain, Canada, China, France, Ghana and India. Many Kenyans fear that the crisis could seriously hurt the economy, which is fueled by tourism and outside investment and is highly vulnerable to swings in perception. Kenya’s currency fell against the dollar on Monday.

On Monday, reflecting the breadth of the crisis, judges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague took the unusual step of suspending for one week the trial of Kenya’s deputy president, William Ruto, on charges of crimes against humanity so that he could return home to assist in the government’s response.

“We have been assaulted by hateful, unthinking cowards,” Mr. Ruto said at the airport upon his return.

“They work for the devil, we work for a living God,” he added. “We shall defeat them. We shall defeat them.”

Reporting was contributed by Alan Cowell from London, Reuben Kyama and Tyler Hicks from Nairobi; Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem; Mark Mazzetti from Washington; Mohammed Ibrahim from Mogadishu, Somalia; and William K. Rashbaum from New York.