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Terrorists in siege at Kenya mall 'neutralized'

| Monday, Sept. 23, 2013, 8:09 p.m.

NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenyan security forces early Tuesday said they had taken control of all floors of the Nairobi shopping center attacked by terrorists.

The interior ministry said troops were combing the Westgate complex and it is “unlikely” any hostages were left in the building.

Kenyan television reported that six terrorists had been “neutralized.”

“Two or three Americans” and “one Brit” were among those who attacked the mall, Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed said on PBS “NewsHour.” She said the Americans were 18 to 19 years old, of Somali or Arab origin and lived “in Minnesota and one other place” in the country.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the department had “no definitive evidence of the nationalities or the identities” of the attackers.

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. A series of explosions and a fire swept through the shopping complex on Monday morning.

“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 by night the flames had engulfed the building.

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 on 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 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 on 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 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 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 the 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 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.

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 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, is accused of similar crimes.

Kenyatta organized a news conference on 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 State Department said on 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 appeared to have already been done.

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