Somalia’s al Shabaab Islamist group said on Tuesday its militants were still holed up in a Kenyan shopping mall they attacked at the weekend and there were “countless dead bodies”, raising fears the death toll could be higher than 62.
Kenyan security forces were searching for the al Qaeda-linked attackers who are believed by Western sources to include Americans and possibly a British woman who may be the widow of a suicide bomber who took part in an attack in London in 2005. Al Shabaab rejected suggestions that foreigners were involved.
Sporadic bursts of gunfire and an explosion marked the fourth day since the militants stormed into the Westgate centre in Nairobi during a busy Saturday lunchtime, spraying bullets and lobbing grenades.
Helicopters buzzed over the complex, which is popular with foreigners and prosperous Kenyans. Al Shabaab says it launched the attack in pursuit of demands that Kenya withdraw troops from Somalia, where they have battled the Islamist group. President Uhuru Kenyatta has vowed to stay the course there.
The attack has come at a time when several violent Islamist groups from Mali to Algeria, Nigeria to Kenya – tapping into local grievances but all espousing an anti-Western, anti-Christian creed – are striking at state authority and international interests.
“There are still gunmen in the building,” said an intelligence officer, who asked not to be named, speaking near the mall, which is surrounded by troops. Asked if there were still hostages, he said: “We are not sure yet.”
As Kenyan authorities asserted that the end of the siege was “very near”, al Shabaab said its militants were still holding out in the Westgate centre and their hostages were still alive.