Kenya mall attack: All hostages believed freed, officials say

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Kenyan officials said early Tuesday that the violent standoff at an upscale shopping mall was drawing to a close and that all hostages were believed to have been freed.

"Our forces are combing the mall floor by floor looking for anyone left behind," the Interior Ministry said in a tweet about 1 a.m. "We believe all hostages have been released."

No other details were given.

Gunfire and explosions were heard on and off throughout the day Monday, after security forces launched a dawn assault to flush out the militants who stormed the Westgate mall Saturday.

The security operation peaked in the early afternoon, with a volley of explosions and heavy arms fire. Black smoke poured from the building, as a fire raged for several hours.

Kenyan Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku said the number of people killed since Saturday stood at 62, and that 50 of the 175 injured remained hospitalized.

At least three gunmen were killed and several others were injured, according to defense officials. Unconfirmed reports from Kenyan media later said the number of militants killed had risen to six.

The Shabab, an Al Qaeda-linked militia in Somalia, has claimed responsibility for the assault. It had been warning for nearly two years that it would mount a major attack in Kenya to punish the country for sending troops into Somalia. Until Saturday, however, its attacks had consisted mostly of small-scale shootings and grenade attacks.

Kenyan armed forces chief Gen. Julius Karangi said the militants involved in the attack came from different countries, but he declined to specify which. The Shabab is known to have recruited foreigners, including Americans and Europeans, to fight in Somalia. It has also recruited Kenyans.

Karangi said Monday's fire was started by the assailants as a diversion, in a bid to flee the mall. Officials said the building was surrounded and that there would be no escape for the militants.

As questions arose about possible security and intelligence failures, Kenyan officials posted upbeat updates on Twitter throughout the day.

"Spread some love, hug a friend, hug a stranger, we're Kenya," said one tweet from the Interior Ministry.

"We're increasingly gaining advantage of the attackers," tweeted Kenyan Police Chief David Chimayo. "Thumbs up to our multi-agency team, we have just managed to rescue some hostages."

He later reported: "Taken control of all the floors. We're not here to feed the attackers with pastries but to finish and punish them."


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Twitter: @latimesdixon

Special correspondent Soi reported from Nairobi and Tiimes staff writer Dixon from Johannesburg, South Africa.

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