Loud explosions accompanied by plumes of smoke rocked the lower floors of Kenya's Westgate Shopping Mall on Monday as the country's security forces moved in on the site where al-Qaeda-linked Somali terrorists have held hostages since Saturday, killing a reported 62 people of various nationalities.
Gunfire and sporadic explosions were heard coming from the Nairobi shopping mall's supermarket, located on the lower floors, nearly an hour after Kenya's security forces declared that it had taken "control of all floors" from the terrorists. The plumes of smoke rising from the building were reportedly caused by militants inside the mall setting mattresses in the supermarket on fire to distract security forces, the country's Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku said at a press conference Monday. Lenku added that the blaze had been controlled.
Julius Karangi, chief of the Kenyan general staff, added that in spite of Monday's threatening blaze, Kenya's security forces continue to move forward on the mall to regain complete control of the area. He went on to say that the terrorists in the mall have no hope for escape as the large public area, consisting of more than 80 stores, supermarkets and banks, is completely surrounded by security forces. "We have no intention whatsoever of going backwards," Karangi said in a statement Monday, adding that the terrorists may surrender if they wish, according to Reuters.
The unstable hostage standoff situation began Saturday when 10 to 15 terrorists of the al-Qaeda-linked, Somalia-based al Shabaab group took control of the Westgate Shopping Mall midday, reportedly going store-to-store and firing upon civilians while taking hostages. Some witnesses claim the terrorists asked shoppers if they were Muslim, and any Muslims found were allowed to leave the store.
"While we were back there, you could hear them methodically going from store to store, talking to people and asking questions," survivor Bendita Malakia, a North Carolina resident who moved to Nairobi earlier this summer, told CNN affiliate WAVY. Malakia had taken refuge behind the metal security gate of one store along with several other shoppers before escaping the mall. "They were shooting, screaming. Then it would stop for a while and they would go to another store," she added.
Since the terrorist attack on Saturday, a reported 62 people have been killed at Westgate Shopping Mall, according to a Red Cross death count. The Red Cross also said that 63 people remain missing, and another 175 were injured, including a reported five Americans. Interior Minister Lenku said on his Twitter feed that almost all of the hostages at the mall had been evacuated, while the Kenya Defense Forces Twitter feed said that three of the attackers had been killed, although these claims have yet to be confirmed.
Although Kenya's government has acknowledged that it has received support from foreign governments in this most recent terrorist attack, it has said that it is capable of handling the situation on an interior level. The government also acknowledged that although the terrorist group is based in Somalia, the attackers are reportedly from all over the world. Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta ddismissed a call on Sunday to pull Kenyan forces out of neighboring Somalia, where Kenya has been leading an African Union-backed mission to drive out the al Shabaab terrorist group.
According to CBS, the al Shabaab group is known primarily for carrying out attacks in Somalia, and has not been seen as a great threat to the U.S. compared to other al-Qaeda linked groups, like the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Nairobi was one of the first cities to be attacked by al-Qaeda in 1998 when its U.S. Embassy was bombed. The most recent large-scale attack by al Shabaab was in 2010 in Uganda that killed 77 people. So far, reports indicate that four Britons have been confirmed dead in the weekend's terrorist standoff, as well as Kenyans, Canadians, French, Indians, a South African, a Ghanian, and a Chinese woman.