NAIROBI (AFP) – Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta announced Tuesday that a four-day siege by Islamist gunmen of a Nairobi shopping mall was over, with the “immense” loss of 61 civilians and six members of the security forces.
“We have ashamed and defeated our attackers, that part of our task is completed,” a somber Kenyatta, who himself lost family members in the assault, said in a televised address to the nation.
“Our losses are immense,” he added, announcing three days of national mourning.
He said five attackers had been killed and 11 suspects were in custody.
“We have been badly hurt, but we have been brave, united and strong. Kenya has stared down evil and triumphed. We have defeated our enemies and showed the whole world what we can accomplish,” he said.
The president said “three floors of the mall collapsed, trapping several bodies within the rubble including those of terrorists.” Police said the current death toll was provisional, with the Kenyan Red Cross saying 63 people were still listed as missing.
In one of the worst attacks in the country’s history, a group of attackers marched into the four-story, part Israeli-owned Westgate Mall at midday Saturday, spraying shoppers with automatic weapons fire and tossing grenades.
Somalia’s Al Qaeda-linked Shebab rebels said it carried out the attack in retaliation for Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia.
Kenyatta said that “forensic investigations are underway to establish the nationalities of all those involved” amid reports Americans and a British woman were among the insurgents.
There has been growing media speculation at the possible role of wanted British extremist Samantha Lewthwaite, daughter of a British soldier and widow of suicide bomber Germaine Lindsay, who blew himself up on a London Underground train on July 7, 2005, killing 26 people.
Lewthwaite is wanted in Kenya, and is accused of links to the Shebab.
The president said intelligence reports had suggested that a British woman and two or three American citizens “may have been involved in the attack,” but said could not yet be confirmed.
Kenyan army chief Julius Karangi has said the attackers were from “different countries”. Many foreign fighters, including Somalis with dual nationalities, are members of the Shebab force.
Close to 200 were wounded in the four-day long carnage, which saw running battles between militants and security forces in the complex, popular with wealthy Kenyans, diplomats, UN workers and other expatriates.
The siege developed into a hostage drama with Shebab claiming hostages were being held, and Kenyan special forces — who were backed by Israeli, US and British agents — describing the stand-off as delicate.
Police said earlier Tuesday that explosive devices set up by the militants were defused in the mall, with part of the roof collapsing after a fierce fire the day before.
Shebab spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage has said the brazen assault was in retaliation for Nairobi’s two-year battle against the extremists’ bases in southern Somalia.
On Tuesday, he threatened further “black days” if Kenya did not bring troops home, warning the siege was just “a taste of what we will do.”
For his part, Kenyatta vowed “full accountability for the mindless destruction, deaths, pain, loss and suffering we have all undergone.”
He added: “These cowards will meet justice, as will their accomplices and patrons, wherever they are.”
Shocked witnesses said the attackers weeded out non-Muslims for execution by demanding they recite the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith. Children were also executed.
As well as scores of Kenyans — from ordinary workers to the president’s nephew — many of the dead include foreigners, including six Britons, as well as two Canadians, a Chinese woman, a Dutch woman, two French women, two Indians, a South African and a South Korean.
“The people who did this, they are vigilantes, they are animals,” British businessman Louis Bawa, whose eight-year-old daughter and wife were killed, told the Daily Telegraph.
Away from Westgate, Nairobi on Tuesday appeared to have returned to largely business as usual, but the attacks have shocked Kenyans deeply.
Blood donor appeals ended after banks filled with donations from hundreds, while over $650,000 has been raised to support the families affected.
Israeli interests in Kenya have come under attack before, and the Westgate mall — frequented by well-to-do Kenyans, diplomats, UN workers and other expatriates — has long been seen as a potential target.
The siege, which has revived memories of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, is the worst attack in Nairobi since an Al-Qaeda bombing at the U.S. embassy killed more than 200 people in 1998.
President Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, has called Kenyatta offering “whatever law enforcement support that is necessary.”
Intelligence sources from two foreign countries who could not be named said there had been no leaks or “chatter” ahead of the attack, despite close monitoring of the Shebab’s operations, suggesting the insurgents may have come from a different cell.