NAIROBI, Kenya -- Kenya’s security forces were reported to be closing in on Al-Qaeda-linked gunmen holding hostages in an upscale shopping mall late Sunday, as a major explosion rocked the building around nightfall.
Earlier Sunday, Israeli advisors were reported to be helping Kenya's government try to free the hostages said to be held by 10 to 15 militants after an attack that killed at least 59 people and wounded 175. One of the terrorists was reported to be a woman.
There were fears the death toll could mount sharply after the Kenyan Red Cross Society announced Sunday that 49 people were missing and unaccounted for. It was not clear whether all of those were being held hostage, or if some were hiding, dead or had fled without being accounted for.
The Kenya National Disaster Operation Center said on Twitter on Sunday evening a major operation was underway, while Kenyan media reporting military forces and elite police units were mounting a final assault to free the hostages. Sporadic gunfire had rung out from the building throughout most of the day.
Many Kenyans were alarmed at the likely effect the attack would have on tourism and feared more terrorist attacks were likely in future. Some expressed frustration as the siege dragged on without a result.
President Uhuru Kenyatta on Sunday urged Western governments not to issue travel warnings advising travelers to avoid Kenya because it would damage tourism and the Kenyan economy. He said terrorist attacks occurred in Western countries without anyone issuing travel warnings to avoid them.
— Disaster OpCentre KE (@NDOCKenya) September 22, 2013
One onlooker outside the mall, James Mwangi, 19, a student, was holding vigil until the operation was over, saying he was desperately waiting for news of relatives stuck inside.
“This terrorism attack is going to have a very bad impact on the tourism industry. Tourists will think security is not up to standard. The tourism industry will face losses from that,” Mwangi said.
Joel Mbugwa, a porter, also part of the crowd watching the building from a distance, was angered by how long the police and military operation was taking.
“Why can’t the police and army just go in and shoot these people? There are hostages in there and they [the terrorists] will just kill them,” he said.
Mbugwa said the Kenyan government made a big mistake in 2001 by sending its army against Al Shabab, the Al Qaeda-linked Somali militant group that has claimed responsibility for the attack.
“Al Shabab are not an army. They don’t follow orders. They’ll just decide to go and attack certain places, shops, markets, bus-stops. But if they can come up to a place like Westgate mall I believe they can explode a bomb anywhere, even at State House,” Mbugwa said, referring to the president’s residence.
Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack in a series of tweets Saturday, saying it was revenge for Kenya’s push into Somalia in 2011.
On Sunday, Shabab tweeted that security forces had landed on the roof of the Westgate mall and were endangering the lives of hostages.
It said the "Kenyan forces who’ve just attempted a roof landing must know that they are jeopardising the lives of hostages."
Kenyatta acknowledged Kenyan frustration at how long it was taking security forces to resolve the crisis but urged people to be patient and give the police and army time.
"With professionals on site, I assure Kenyans that we have as good a chance to successfully neutralize the terrorists as we can hope for," he told journalists Sunday.
Despite the reports of Israeli involvement in the rescue attempt, President Kenyatta said Sunday the rescue attempt remained a domestic operation.
"For the time being, this remains an operation of the Kenyan security agencies. I thank all our international friends who have reached out to us and stood with us," Kenyatta said.
Israeli officials declined to comment on reports its commandos were participating in the siege. Several Israeli entrepreneurs own businesses at the Westgate mall, including a popular café and bakery.
Late Sunday afternoon, about five military and police helicopters flew in and circled the mall at a low height.
There was a heavy police presence at the mall, but crowds kept gathering across the road to watch and wait as the siege dragged on. Police dispersed the crowds several times.
Kenyatta told journalists at a news conference that his nephew and the young man's fiancee were both killed in the siege.
"These are young, lovely people who I personally knew and loved," he said, vowing to bring the masterminds of the attack to justice. He said it was "remarkable and encouraging" Kenyan security services helped rescue about 1,000 people from the mall.
"No one should lose their lives so needlessly and so senselessly and no family should have to receive news that their loved one has been killed by a criminal bunch of cowards," he said.
"We shall punish the masterminds swiftly and very painfully," he said.
Three Britons, two French, two Canadians, a Chinese citizen, a Dutch citizen and renowned Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor were also among the dead.
Several hostages managed to escape Sunday.
Kenyatta refused to comment on reports the gunmen were wearing explosive vests.
Al Shabab ruled out negotiations with Kenyan authorities on the release of hostages. Kenyatta declared he would not withdraw Kenyan forces from Somalia.
"We went as a nation into Somalia to help stabilize the country but most importantly to fight a war against terror. We shall not relent on the war on terror," he said.
In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Paul Hirschson said Israel does not comment on its security cooperation with other countries. He added it does not appear that Israel or Israelis were being specifically targeted as they have been in previous attacks in Kenya.
In 2002, terrorists bombed an Israeli-owned hotel in the resort town of Mombasa and tried unsuccessfully to shoot down a plane carrying Israeli tourists.
Since then, cooperation between the two countries has increased.
In 2012, Kenyan authorities arrested two Iranian agents in Mombasa and charged them with planning to use explosives to attack Israeli-owned resorts.
This year, Israel’s spy agency Mossad reportedly helped Kenya investigate the massive fire that heavily damaged Nairobi’s international airport.
Special correspondent Soi reported from Nairobi and Times staff writer Dixon from Johannesburg, South Africa.