SECTIONS

Source reveals that lack of unified command led to confusion that even claimed the life of a police officer

                              The collapsed section of Westgate Mall

By STANDARD TEAM

NAIROBI, KENYA: Two weeks after terrorists stormed the upmarket Westgate Shopping Mall and killed scores of people, there are still many unanswered questions.

And although the mystery has contined to deepen, with authorities issue conflicting statements, The Standard has established that lack of a unified command between the specialised Recce unit of the General Service Unit (GSU) and the army resulted in total confusion.

At some point, the Recce unit was ordered to leave and hand over to the military, but not before losing at least one member to “friendly fire”. It is also not clear if they had time to share valuable intelligence with the military.

It is also unclear why an army unit that lacks training in urban warfare, hostage rescue and counter terrorism was rushed to the site, complete with armoured personnel carriers and rocket propelled grenades powerful enough to bring down a building, but without intelligence.

The latest suggestion by Inspector General of Police David Kimaiyo that gunmen who attacked the shopping complex were probably between four and six added to the twist.

President Uhuru Kenyatta and Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Ole Lenku had persistently put the figure at between 10 and 15, with reports that five attackers were killed as security forces broke the four-day deadly siege.

Their identities and the whereabouts of their bodies, including the lone gunman police claimed was arrested but died in custody while undergoing treatment, are unknown.

A Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) soldier who was in action at the mall suggested that even the Special Forces units that would have taken out the attackers weren’t certain that they had killed them.

On Monday, September 23, on the night the final assault to secure the shopping complex was executed, the soldier reported discussions among the units thus:

“Where are the bodies? If they are there, we too have not seen them, or they are probably buried in the rubble.”

As a pointer that the public might have been led to believe more than meets the eye, the soldier remarked: “On Monday morning, we (soldiers) watched the news amused. Where were you getting these reports?”

Reports indicate the building might have collapsed on Monday afternoon apparently after heavy explosions. Thick black smoke billowed into the sky amid bursts of gunfire as two helicopters flew low over the building.

The soldier who spoke to The Standard on condition of anonymity claimed security forces relied on an incomplete plan of the complex in the early stages of the operation.

The initial building’s blueprints that security forces obtained did not show an underground tunnel now feared to have offered an escape route for some terrorists, the KDF soldier claimed.

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The soldier was among the evacuation team that attended to the injured KDF Special Forces.

The soldier, who asked not to be named as he is not authorised to comment on the matter, said they were not even aware of the tunnel said to run under the building until a blast whose origin is also a mystery, collapsed part of the mall.

There are claims that some of the terrorists behind the massacre might have escaped capture by fleeing like “sewer rats” through the tunnel.

Mobile phone video footage from one of the soldiers shows blurred images of the charred aftermath of the attack.

At one point, the soldiers speak in hushed tones and one wonders aloud in Kiswahili; “Walitoroka?” (Did they flee?) The reply is inaudible.

Sources from the Westgate security team manning the area after the attack claimed some of the terrorists might have used the air vent ducts in the building to move from one point of the building to another, making it difficult for security forces to mark their exact location.

There is speculation that they might have used the same vents to move to a part of the building where they made their escape. A witness has also claimed he saw one of the attackers change his clothes and file out of the building alongside terrified victims rescued by police officers. So how many may have escaped?

This is among many questions that have lingered since the evening of Tuesday, September 24, when President Kenyatta announced that the KDF had taken over the entire building.

In the televised address, the President reported that 61 civilians had been killed alongside six security men, and 167 injured. Eleven suspects were in custody, he added. 

The Red Cross reported 69 dead. Their number of those missing, however, raised fears that the death toll was much higher, but the figure has since been revised downwards from 67 to 28. Authorities have been guarded about the list, raising eyebrows.

In addition, officials are yet to revise the casualties although media reports quoting military and Red Cross sources have reported at least nine bodies being pulled out of the rubble. Soldiers taking part in the search mission fear there are still bodies in the rubble, citing the stench of rotting human flesh. So just how many people were killed in the terrorist attack?