NAIROBI, Kenya – Kenyan authorities prepared for the gruesome task of recovering dozens more victims than initially feared after the country’s president declared an end Tuesday to the four-day siege of a Nairobi mall by al-Qaida-linked terrorists. Officials said the death count could jump by another 60 or more.
“We have ashamed and defeated our attackers,” President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a televised address to the nation that was delayed for hours as gun battles persisted at the upscale Westgate mall. “Kenya has stared down evil and triumphed.”
Despite Kenyatta’s declaration, troops remained deployed at the vast complex, and security officials told the Associated Press attackers with weapons or booby traps might still be inside. A plan to remove bodies was aborted because of continued skirmishes inside the mall, where three floors had collapsed.
Describing the victims as “innocent, harmless civilians” of “various nationalities, races, ethnic, cultural, religious and other walks of life,” a solemn-looking Kenyatta reported the known death toll: at least 61 civilians, along with six security forces and five al-Shabab militants.
About 175 people were injured, including 62 who remain hospitalized, he said, acknowledging that “several” bodies remained trapped in the rubble, including those of terrorists.
However, another government official speaking on condition of anonymity said a far higher toll was feared and morgue workers were preparing to receive up to 60 more bodies.
“They’re just seeing dead bodies. They’ve found no survivors, no live hostages,” said a Nairobi resident whose brother was taking part in the military sweep inside the mall. He spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because his brother was not authorized to publicly release the information.
Kenyatta said 11 suspects had been arrested; authorities previously announced that seven had been taken into custody at the airport and three elsewhere.
“These cowards will meet justice as will their accomplices and patrons, wherever they are,” an emotional Kenyatta declared.
Kenyatta declared three days of national mourning starting today.
Kenyatta said forensic experts would examine the corpses of the assailants to determine their identities, softening earlier assertions by Kenya’s foreign minister that Americans and a Briton were involved in the siege.
“Intelligence reports had suggested that a British woman and two or three American citizens may have been involved in the attack,” the president said. “We cannot confirm the details at present.”
Kenyan officials as early as Sunday evening began declaring near-victory over what they said were 10 to 15 attackers, some who wore black turbans and many with grenades strapped to their vests. But battles inside the shopping complex continued, straining the credibility of victory declarations.
Booming explosions on Monday collapsed a second-story parking garage down into a department store – blasts that lit cars on fire and sent dark plumes of smoke skyward for nearly two hours. Explosions continued throughout Tuesday, and the chatter of gunfire from inside the building could be heard. Fresh smoke rose from the building in the afternoon.
Fears persisted that some of the attackers could still be alive and loose inside the rubble of the mall.
A higher-ranking security official involved in the investigations said it would take time to search the whole mall before declaring that the terrorist threat had been crushed. The official insisted on anonymity.