BREAKING REPORT FROM KENYA:
Kenya terrorist attack has death toll at 59, as standoff continues while Israeli forces are rescuing the hostages .
Israeli Foreign Ministry says Israelis were not target of attack by Al-Qaida-linked group.
Israeli forces have reportedly joined efforts to end a deadly siege by Somali militants at a Kenyan shopping mall, a security source told AFP Sunday.
“The Israelis have just entered and they are rescuing the hostages and the injured,” AFP quoted the sourec as saying on condition he not be named.
The attack by Al-Qaida-linked militants at the Nairobi killed at least 59 people and wounded 175, Kenya’s interior cabinet secretary said earlier Sunday.
Multiple barrages of gunfire erupted Sunday morning from inside the building where there is a hostage standoff with Islamic extremists nearly 24 hours after they attacked using grenades and assault rifles.
“The priority is to save as many lives as possible,” Joseph Lenku said, reassuring the families of the hostages in the upscale Westgate mall. Kenyan forces have already rescued about 1,000 people, he said.
Lenku said that there are 10 to 15 attackers involved, and Kenyan forces have control of the security cameras inside the mall. Combined military and police forces surrounded the building.
Former Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga told reporters at the mall that he has been told officials couldn’t determine the exact number of hostages inside the mall.
“There are quite a number of people still being held hostage on the third floor and the basement area where the terrorists are still in charge,” Odinga said.
The Somali Islamist group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for Saturday’s attack on the Kenyan capital’s Westgate mall, which is owned by Israelis and frequented by Westerners as well as Kenyans. Several foreigners, including a Canadian diplomat, were among the dead.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry said that Israelis were not the target of the attack.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said more than 39 people had been killed, among them close members of his own family. A senior government official said on his Twitter feed that more than 300 people had been wounded. The dead included children, and the wounded ranged in age from 2 to 78.
France said two of its citizens had been killed, and Canada said two Canadians had died, including a 29-year-old diplomat.
Officials in the Foreign Ministry said three Israeli citizens that were in the mall at the time of the attack were able to escape unharmed and were collected by the Deputy Israeli Ambassador to Kenya Yaki Lopez and the embassy security officer that were present on the scene.
Two Israeli men that managed to escape on their own and an Israeli woman that hid in one of the businesses and was rescued by the local security forces. A senior official at the foreign ministry said that the families of the Israelis that escaped the incident were informed. The ministry said that beyond these persons it is believed that no other Israelis were present.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said there were no Americans among the dead but that several U.S. citizens had been hurt and the wife of a U.S. diplomat working for the U.S. Agency for International Development was killed.
Police said the attackers were holding an unknown number of people on Sunday and the standoff was focused on the mall’s Nakumatt supermarket, one of Kenya’s biggest chains.
Kenyatta said the security forces were engaged in a “delicate operation,” with the top priority being to safeguard the lives of people being held.
Al-Shabab, which has links to Al-Qaida and is battling Kenyan and other African peacekeepers in Somalia, had repeatedly threatened attacks on Kenyan soil if Nairobi did not pull its troops out of the Horn of Africa country.
The group appeared to taunt the security forces, saying on its official Twitter handle aHSMiPress that there would be no negotiations whatsoever with Kenyan officials over the standoff.
“10 hours have passed and the Mujahideen are still strong inside iWestgate Mall and still holding their ground. All praise is due to Allah!,” the group said.
The raid presents Kenyatta with his first major security challenge since a March election victory. He has vowed to defeat the militants who have said it is time to shift the war to Kenyan soil.
“We have overcome terrorist attacks before,” he said.
Relatives of hostages keeping vigil
The assault has been the biggest single attack in Kenya since Al-Qaida’s East Africa cell bombed the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998, killing more than 200 people. In 2002, the same militant cell attacked an Israeli-owned hotel on the coast and tried to shoot down an Israeli jet in a coordinated attack.
Kerry said the United States had offered assistance to the Kenyan government.
“The perpetrators of this heinous act must be brought to justice, and we have offered our full support to the Kenyan Government to do so,” he said in his statement.
Relatives of hostages thought still to be trapped inside the mall were keeping vigil in a nearby Hindu center, waiting for the next move by the security forces.
Kevin Jamal said his sister was taken hostage while shopping at the mall, and he had been waiting for more than six hours.
“I want her to come out alive,” Jamal told Reuters as he joined Kenya Red Cross Society volunteers for a meal of hot curry and chips served by the center.
He said the Kenyan security agencies could have done better, saying, “They should not allow themselves to be outmaneuvered by less than 20 people.”
Police said it was not clear how many attackers they were dealing with, and those rescued said at least one of the attackers was a woman. One of the attackers had been shot and arrested, but died shortly afterward at a hospital.
A fierce gun battle erupted between the police and the militants after Saturday’s initial assault. The shooting continued hours after the first attack and soldiers then managed to enter the building, hunting for the attackers shop by shop.
Witnesses said the attackers were armed with AK-47 rifles and wore ammunition belts.
Police said the attack occurred during a children’s cooking competition hosted by a radio station at the mall, just as the winners were about to receive prizes
There was a lull in activity in the hours after midnight. Troops were milling around at the mall, near two armored personnel carriers and two big fire trucks, one with a long, extendable ladder.
Music was still playing and a video screen was on at a gourmet burger shop. Journalists and curious bystanders were moved out of the mall onto a side road.
Kenya sent its troops into Somalia in October 2011 to pursue the militants it blamed for kidnapping tourists and attacking its security forces.
The major attack on a mall that draws tourists, expatriates and Kenya’s wealthy elite risks hammering an already struggling tourism sector in Kenya and could puncture Kenyatta’s plans to boost East Africa’s biggest economy’s reputation as a sound investment destination.
Al-Shabab’s last big attack outside Somalia was a twin attack in neighboring Uganda, targeting people watching the World Cup final on television in Kampala in June 2010. Seventy-nine people died.
View original HAARETZ publication at: http://www.haaretz.com/news/world/1.548194