BY DAVID RISING and TOM ODULA
---- — NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenya’s president proclaimed victory yesterday over the terrorists who stormed a Nairobi mall, saying security forces had “ashamed and defeated our attackers” following a bloody four-day siege in which dozens of civilians were killed.
President Uhuru Kenyatta said the dead included 61 civilians whose bodies have been recovered so far and six security forces, while some 175 were injured, including 62 who remain hospitalized.
Three floors of the mall collapsed and several bodies were trapped in the rubble, said Kenyatta. His office later said a terrorist’s body was among those in the debris.
Five other extremists were killed by gunfire and another 11 other suspects had been arrested, he said; authorities had previously announced the arrest of seven at the airport and three elsewhere.
“These cowards will meet justice as well their accomplices and patrons, wherever they are,” Kenyatta said, in a televised address to the nation.
Kenyatta, 51, has visited wounded survivors in hospital and made other emotion-filled speeches about the terrorist attack, which has been the harshest test of his leadership since he became president in April.
“Fellow Kenyans, we have been badly hurt and feel great pain and loss. But we have been brave, united and strong,” said Kenyatta, the son of the country’s founding president, Jomo Kenyatta. “Kenya has stared down evil and triumphed.”
Kenyatta’s statesman-like demeanor over the terror crisis is at odds with the charges he faces at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in which he is alleged to have incited violence following Kenya’s 2007 elections.
Kenyatta declared three days of national mourning starting Wednesday.
At the Westgate mall, there were no immediate signs of the Kenyan Security forces closing their operation.
Two Kenyan soldiers who had recently been inside the mall told The Associated Press shortly before the president spoke that the operation was effectively finished, but they said security forces were still combing the facility and had not definitively cleared all the rooms inside. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were under orders not to speak to the media.
Kenyan forces had for two days said they were in the “final phase” of the operation, only to be battled back by the militants inside the building.
Explosions rang from the upscale Westgate mall in Nairobi throughout yesterday, and the chatter of gunfire from inside the building could also be heard. Fresh smoke rose from the building in the afternoon.
The Kenyan Red Cross had previously said 62 people had been killed, and it seemed certain that the number of confirmed deaths would rise as security forces search the building.
Kenyan Red Cross spokesman Abbas Gullet said it was still not known how many more may be dead inside the building.
A government official told The Associated Press that the morgue was preparing for up to an additional 60 bodies, though the official didn’t know an exact count. The government official insisted on anonymity so he would not face retribution from government officials.
Earlier yesterday the al-Qaida-linked attackers used social media to give accounts of the fighting inside the mall that conflicted with the government reports.
“There are countless number of dead bodies still scattered inside the mall, and the mujahideen are still holding their ground,” the Somali rebel group al-Shabab said in one Twitter message considered to be genuine.
It added it still held hostages, who were “still alive looking quite disconcerted but, nevertheless, alive.”
Kenyatta did not mention the fate of the hostages — if it was indeed true that there were still some being held — in his address.
Al-Shabab, whose name means “The Youth” in Arabic, said the mall attack was in retribution for Kenyan forces’ 2011 push into neighboring Somalia. African Union forces pushed the al-Qaida-affiliated group out of Somalia’s capital in 2011.
“You could have avoided all this and lived your lives with relative safety,” the group Tweeted Tuesday. “Remove your forces from our country and peace will come.”
Kenyatta said “initial reports had suggested that a British woman and two or three American citizens may have been involved in the attack,” but that “we cannot confirm the details at the moment.
He said experts were working to try and determine the nationalities of the terrorists.
Earlier, Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed had said “two or three Americans” and “one Brit” were among those who attacked the mall.
A security expert with contacts inside the mall described the attackers as “a multinational collection from all over the world.”
U.S. officials said they were looking into whether any Americans were involved. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that the department had “no definitive evidence of the nationalities or the identities” of the attackers.
Britain’s foreign office said it was aware of the Kenyan foreign minister’s remarks, but would not confirm if a British woman was involved.
Al-Shabab, responding to a request from AP, denied that any women had attacked the mall, saying “these are just baseless rumors.”
“We have an adequate number of young men who fully committed and ready to sacrifice their lives for the sake of Allah and for the sake of their religion,” said the al-Shabab press office in what is thought to be an authentic email address.
The attack began on Saturday when an estimated 12 to 15 al-Shabab militants invaded the mall, wielding grenades and firing on civilians inside the complex, which includes shops for Nike, Adidas and Bose and is popular with foreigners and wealthy Kenyans.
The militants specifically targeted non-Muslims, and at least 18 foreigners were among the dead, including six Britons, as well as citizens from France, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Peru, India, Ghana, South Africa and China. Nearly 200 people were wounded, including five Americans.
A U.S. Embassy vehicle, identifiable by its numbered diplomatic license plate, arrived at the morgue on Tuesday. American officials have not confirmed the deaths of any U.S. citizens in the mall attack, but it appeared possible the Americans who visited the morgue — likely security officials with an agency like the FBI — could have been seeking information about one of the bodies inside.
The attack at the Westgate mall in Nairobi’s Westlands neighborhood was the deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya since the 1998 al-Qaida truck bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, which killed more than 200 people.