|Armoured personnel carriers leave Westgate area after the end of operation against terrorists. [PHOTO: standard]|
By JAMES MBAKA
KENYA: Apparent contradictions in official accounts of the four-day siege on the Westgate Mall have put authorities on the spot.
A classic example was who started the fire that caused plumes of thick black smoke that billowed from the building on Monday. Initially, authorities claimed security forces had done it as a tactic but they later blamed it on the attackers.
At some point, senior government officials and security operatives contradicted each other in the open and then made belated alterations under the guise of ‘official information’.
As President Uhuru Kenyatta on Tuesday evening addressed the nation and declared that “ Al-Shabaab are defeated”, his statement appeared to attempt to convince Kenyans and the world at large that the fierce battle to reclaim the mall was over.
The president’s message was that 67 people, including six soldiers, had been killed as a result of the attack on Westgate. He noted that five attackers had also been killed and 11 of them captured. According to the earlier figures, the number of those arrested was 16.
However, the Interior minister had earlier in the day stated that security agents had arrested 10 suspects for interrogation in connection to the Westgate attack.
It became difficult to verify the truth of the statements being released after the military drove away journalists covering the attack.
Claims that security forces had rescued people on Monday and Tuesday morning could not be verified after the government failed to release the figures. The media, which had camped only 300m from the gate, did not see any hostage being rescued as the number of those held by attackers remained unclear.
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On Sunday, the government had estimated the number of hostages to be 30, including children, but the media was not given the actual figures as the rescue mission purportedly continued.
Only ambulances and military pick-ups could be seen driving up to the entrance doors before speeding off, raising anxiety that they were ferrying dead bodies.
The military said three floors caved in but the cause has not been established.
While addressing the press accompanied by Inspector-General of Police David Kimaiyo and Chief of Staff Major General Julius Karangi, Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph ole Lenku appeared to slip up on what appeared to be a rehearsed statement and suggested that the military was responsible for the fire before the two officers nudged him into recanting the statement, and blaming the fire on the terrorists.
President Kenyatta, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF), announced on Tuesday evening that the siege was over, but added that the losses were “immense”.
But late on Monday, the Interior ministry on its Twitter handle had already declared the siege was over.
“We’re in control of Westgate,” read the tweet, about three-and-a-half days after Al-Shabaab militants stormed the mall.
State House spokesman Manoah Esipisu also said all hostages were believed to have been evacuated.
“Our special forces are inside the building checking the rooms. We think that everyone, the hostages, have been evacuated, but we do not want to take any chances,” he was quoted to have said.
“The hostages who were being held by the Mujahideen inside Westgate are still alive, looking quite disconcerted but, nevertheless, alive,” Al-Shabaab said in a message posted on its latest Twitter handle after an earlier one was pulled down.
Also on Tuesday morning, before the break of the stand-off, Kenyan police posted a message on Twitter saying they were diffusing explosives set up by the militants at the mall.
“We are doing a clean-up of explosives that had been set up by the terrorists,” Kenyan police said in a tweet.
“The Special Forces call this sanitising. At the moment, they have not met any resistance, but of course we are not ruling out the possibility that there are a couple of them hiding in a remote room or corner,” said Esipisu.
But fierce sporadic shooting erupted again on the same day – hours after officials had claimed the special forces were “in control” of the mall – and Al-Shabaab had also claimed to be still holding hostages.
As government authorities insisted it was in control, sporadic bursts could be heard again. Earlier on Tuesday, Al-Shabaab bragged in a Twitter message that their fighters were “still holding their ground”.
There were conflicting reports about the true identity of the attackers, six of whom are reported to have been killed by Kenyan special forces during the siege, and the number of those who were allegedly in custody.
No details have been given on the number of hostages freed, or those still being held, but 63 people were earlier recorded missing by the Kenya Red Cross. This figure was thought to include hostages as well as those possibly killed by their captors.
Another issue raised was the identity of the woman suspected to be the commander of the attackers. Witnesses said they saw a woman leading the militants, but the Interior minister said there was no woman even as the President acknowledged the presence of a woman.
On multiple occasions, Western security officials fear that several fighters slipped out of the mall during the mayhem of the attack, dropping their guns and disguising themselves as civilians, an account echoed by some witnesses.