Kenyan troops and rescue workers scoured the wreckage of a Nairobi shopping mall yesterday for bodies and booby-trapped explosives after a four-day siege by Islamist gunmen left at least 67 dead and dozens more missing.
Rescuers wore face masks and some soldiers wrapped scarves around their mouths because of the overpowering stench inside the Westgate Mall, once the Kenyian capital’s most upmarket shopping center. A large part of the complex collapsed after it was ravaged by heavy explosions and a fierce fire.
Across the country, flags flew at half-mast at the start of three days of official mourning.
Somalia’s al-Shabaab militant group claimed on Twitter that 137 hostages they had seized had all died, figures impossible to verify and higher than the number of people officially registered as missing. They also accused Kenyan troops of using “chemical agents” to end the stand-off.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta announced an end to the 80-hour bloodbath late on Tuesday, with the “immense” loss of 61 civilians and six members of the security forces. Police said the death toll was provisional, with the Kenyan Red Cross listing 63 people as still missing.
Top forensic experts and investigators from Israel, the US and Britain are supporting Kenyan teams, officials said, with many questions remaining over the identity of the attackers; the possible presence of a British woman and US jihadists; and how the cell got such large quantities of weapons and ammunition into the complex.
A reporter outside the bullet-riddled mall saw teams of sniffer dogs, which will check for explosives and victims buried under the rubble of a collapsed part of the building, and one rescue worker said he saw “many bodies” inside.
“The army told us we would get access to the bodies yesterday, but then said it was too dangerous for us to go in because of booby traps and because of the part that caved in. We have to get access today,” a Kenyan Red Cross official told reporters.
“The bodies that are still inside the mall will have to be identified from photos. They are now in such a state of decomposition that you can’t put a family member through that,” the official said.
In one of the worst attacks in the country’s history, the militants marched into the four-story, part Israeli-owned mall at midday Saturday, spraying shoppers with automatic weapons fire and tossing grenades.
The attack, which intelligence experts said they had no specific prior warning of, was well-planned and prepared, with fighters stocked with enough ammunition to hold off Kenyan forces backed by US, British and Israeli agents.
Close to 200 were wounded in the siege, which saw running battles between militants and security forces in one of Nairobi’s largest and most modern shopping centers. The mall is popular with wealthy Kenyans, diplomats, UN workers and other expatriates, and was packed when the attack began.
Five attackers were also killed and 11 suspects detained, Kenyatta said, vowing “full accountability for the mindless destruction, deaths, pain, loss and suffering we have all undergone.”
“These cowards will meet justice, as will their accomplices and patrons, wherever they are,” he said.