NAIROBI, Kenya -- Kenyan government Twitter accounts claimed early Tuesday that authorities had taken control of all the floors of a Nairobi shopping complex that terrorists had seized Saturday.
The tweets from the Interior Ministry’s account offered few details of what had taken place in the final hours at the upscale Westgate mall. One said that “we are in control of Westgate.”
“Our forces are combing the mall floor by floor looking for anyone left behind,” said another. “We believe all hostages have been released.”
Kenyan television reported that six militants had been “neutralized,” but there was no official confirmation. The Kenyan Defense Forces reported in a tweet that a briefing would be held later, but did not say when.
The Twitter reports followed a day of anxiety over what was happening after a series of explosions and a fire swept through the luxury shopping complex Monday morning.
A Kenyan official hurriedly organized a news conference after the explosions. “We want to assure Kenyans that our forces are in full control of this situation, and we are certain that in no time the fire will be put (out),” Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku said.
But the smoke from whatever was burning spewed skyward all day, and when night came golden flames had engulfed the building, licking hungrily into the darkness.
For a nation starving for answers, the spreading smoke from the hidden blaze seemed an apt symbol for a nightmare that had claimed at least 62 lives and left 175 injured. Hundreds of people were trapped when a dozen or so gunmen entered the mall, one of the city’s most popular shopping destinations, at midday Saturday and began spraying bullets and tossing grenades. Kenyan security forces responded, sealing off the streets around the complex and gathering for a push to grab it back from the terrorists.
But Kenyan authorities’ efforts to project an image of control faded Monday as they gave seemingly conflicting messages about what was taking place.
Ole Lenku said the flames came from mattresses the terrorists had set on fire to distract the security forces who were attempting to wrest back control of the building. That contradicted what officials had asserted the day before – that Kenyan forces already had gained full control of that floor – but Ole Lenku declined to clarify his remark.
“We are in control of all the floors,” Ole Lenku said Monday. “The terrorists could be running and hiding in some stores somewhere or something, but all floors now are under our control.”
Kenyan authorities refused to say anything about the source of the explosions, whether they’d set the fire or whether the gunmen possessed more explosives. It was also unclear how the gunmen continued to operate in the thick, black smoke, amid speculation that they were equipped with gas masks and night-vision goggles.
Al Shabab, the al Qaida affiliate that’s based in neighboring Somalia, had claimed the meticulously orchestrated attack as retaliation against Kenya for crossing into southern Somalia two years ago to beat back the U.S.-designated terrorist group.
Eyewitnesses have told how the gunmen, who Kenyan authorities have said numbered 10 to 15, jumped out of vehicles, strapped heavily with ammunition. Some stormed through the front entrance as others ran up a parking lot ramp to the top floor, trapping shoppers in between.
By striking the Westgate, the terrorist group hit not just a mall, but also the very heart of the city’s identity – and a prime economic engine. The Israeli-owned mall is a favorite destination not just for well-off Kenyans but also for Nairobi’s large expatriate community, much of which is here because civil wars and political instability in nearby lands made relatively peaceful Nairobi a regional hub for diplomats and aid workers.
Nairobi is the main headquarters for the United Nations in Africa, including the international headquarters for the U.N. Environmental Program. Nairobi also holds the largest U.S. foreign mission in Africa – a replacement for the U.S. Embassy that al Qaida bombed in 1998, killing more than 200 people.
Foreign investors have flocked here in recent years. Google and General Electric have headquartered their African operations in Nairobi.
Westerners who work or travel regularly in the wider region use Nairobi as a sanctuary of fine cuisine, comfort and fellow countrymen.
Kelly Ranck, a 26 year-old American, is based in Nairobi but spends roughly half her time in remote field posts in South Sudan and Chad working for World Concern, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization.
“After being in the bush, this place feels like a slice of heaven,” Ranck said. She can hang out with like-minded peers and relax into a more familiar lifestyle, she said. Without her breaks in Nairobi, “I would totally burn out,” she said.
Kenya is clearly sensitive to the effect the attack might have on its reputation for stability – and on its wallet, which relies heavily on tourism. The nation’s image already took a hit earlier this year with the election as president of Uhuru Kenyatta, whom the International Criminal Court charged with crimes against humanity stemming from post-election violence. Kenyatta’s deputy, William Ruto, faces similar accusations from the court.
Kenyatta organized a news conference Sunday with two main presidential candidates he’d defeated in the elections in March. Each spoke for only a few minutes, but all three made sure to issue a plea to global communities to refrain from warning their citizens not to travel to Kenya. The U.S. State Department said Sunday that it was suspending travel here for government employees.
“This is an incident of terror, an incident that can happen in any city, in any capital, anywhere in the world,” Kenyatta said. “This is not the time to issue travel advisories, for in doing so, the success is only for those who wish to cause harm.”
But as the flames burned at the Westgate, the damage already appeared to have been done.