By Nicholas Soi and Robyn Dixon
8:35 PM EDT, September 24, 2013
NAIROBI, Kenya — President Uhuru Kenyatta declared an end to the Nairobi shopping mall siege after a final day of shooting and explosions Tuesday, but many key questions about the terrorist attack remained unanswered.
In a somber speech to the nation, Kenya's leader spelled out the toll — at least 72 people dead, including six soldiers and five of the attackers. But he offered no details on what happened in the final confrontation between security forces and attackers, in which repeated explosions toppled several floors of the mall and sent a thick plume of smoke into the air.
Nor did he explain what happened to hostages reportedly held by members of the Al Qaeda-linked Somali militant group the Shabab, which claimed responsibility for the attack.
Persistent reports that foreigners, including several Americans, were among the attackers also remained unconfirmed. Kenyan authorities said 11 suspects were arrested, but the president did not say whether they were detained at the Westgate mall or at other sites.
Kenyatta said several bodies, including those of some of the attackers, remained buried under the collapsed floors. His comments appeared to suggest that civilians, possibly hostages, might also be buried in the mess.
The Kenya Red Cross Society said 51 people were missing.
Kenyatta declared three days of mourning and praised Kenyan spirit and national unity. Many people stood in line to give blood or donate cash in an outpouring of support after the attack began around noon Saturday.
Extraordinary stories of survival and courage emerged along with the thousand people who escaped. British news reports said an off-duty British special forces officer went repeatedly into the building to rescue people. An uncle told reporters that 4-year-old Elliot Prior told one of the gunmen, "You are a bad man," and was let go. Kenyan news reports cited closed-circuit TV footage that showed a pregnant woman arguing with attackers, who shot and killed her.
The incident has also prompted concern that the Shabab's new leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, may increasingly focus on high-impact terrorist attacks outside Somalia. Godane took over the movement in July after rivals were killed in a violent grab for power.
The Shabab's media office said Tuesday on Twitter that Godane was planning to make a statement soon on the mall attack.
The group has suffered setbacks in Somalia at the hands of African forces, including Kenyans, who are assisting the weak central government. The Shabab is increasingly unpopular in Somalia because of its violent attacks there. It has said it attacked the Nairobi mall to punish Kenya for sending its forces across the border.
Kenyatta, elected in March, faces International Criminal Court charges of crimes against humanity stemming from postelection violence in 2007 and 2008. The crisis was his first major test as leader. The nation's security forces won praise from many Kenyans for the full assault that eventually ended the standoff.
But critics faulted the frequent contradictions by government ministers, the self-congratulatory tone of messages by government officials on social media, and the paucity of information on what happened. Authorities said over the weekend they were making a final assault, then declared victory early Tuesday. But explosions and shooting continued throughout much of the day.
"Kenyan government Twitter accounts would be better used for valuable, timely info updates than for self-congratulation," said prominent Kenyan tech guru Erik Hersman.
Kenyatta said that intelligence reports suggested that three Americans and a British woman may have been involved in the attack but that it was too early to confirm this. Forensic experts were working to establish the attackers' identities, he added. U.S. officials have said they are checking those reports but also could not confirm them.
The president's comments fueled speculation that Samantha Lewthwaite, widow of one of those involved in the 2005 suicide bombing of London's Underground, was involved. Lewthwaite narrowly escaped arrest in Kenya last year and was reported to be in Somalia.
The Shabab denied that any women were involved.
"We have an adequate number of young men who are fully committed and we do not employ our sisters in such military operations," the group said. It also accused the Kenyan government of understating the casualties.
"The incoherent ramblings of Kenyan officials and the blatant discrepancies with regards to the mujahedin at Westgate betrays their fears," a spokesman for the group said on Twitter.
Kenyan authorities dismissed the comments as propaganda.
"We have shamed and defeated our attackers," Kenyatta said. "These cowards will meet justice, as will their accomplices."
Special correspondent Soi reported from Nairobi and Times staff writer Dixon from Johannesburg, South Africa.
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