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Three militants killed as Kenyan forces seek to end mall siege

NAIROBI, Kenya – Kenyan security forces killed three Islamist militants as they sought to end a siege of an upscale shopping mall in the capital, Nairobi, in which 69 people died and an unknown number were taken hostage.

Police and army officials occupy every level of the four-story Westgate Mall and the operation to flush out the remaining gunmen and rescue those held captive may end “soon,” Interior Secretary Joseph Ole Lenku told reporters Monday. More than 10 suspects have been arrested for questioning, the Interior Ministry said, without providing further details.

“Evacuating hostages has gone on very well,” Ole Lenku said after explosions and sporadic bursts of automatic gunfire were heard at the building this afternoon. “We are very certain that there are very, very few hostages, if any, in the building.”

The attack was the deadliest in the country since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in downtown Nairobi that killed 213 people. Al-Shabaab, the Somali Islamist militant group, claimed responsibility for the raid. The group had threatened to strike Kenya after it deployed troops in Somalia in October 2011 to fight the militants whom it blamed for a series of kidnappings and the murder of a British tourist in Kenya. Al-Shabaab denied the accusations.

The incident began at about 12:30 p.m. Saturday when armed assailants burst into the mall, tossing hand grenades and spraying gunfire. At least 63 people are missing, the Kenya Red Cross said earlier Monday. It’s unclear if anyone left in the building is being forcibly held or hiding.

The attackers, all of them male and some of whom were dressed in female clothing, are “a multinational collection” of people, Kenya Chief of Defence Forces General Julius Karangi said today.

A series of large explosions and gunfire rocked the upscale mall at about 1:15 p.m. Monday. Shortly afterward, dozens of soldiers, some of them carrying heavy machine guns, and an army tank were seen at the main access road to the complex as thick black smoke billowed from the building. The attackers had set fire to Nakumatt, a retail store, in the mall to create a distraction and possibly escape, Karangi said. Authorities have surrounded the building, he said.

“The risk for an attack on Westgate or another of Nairobi’s upscale malls was high and well-known, but also very difficult to prevent entirely,” Clare Allenson, an Africa analyst at Eurasia Group in Washington, said in an email. “However, the lack of adequately equipped police first responders and generally poor communication and coordination of early efforts to secure the building underscores the weak state of Kenya’s security institutions overall.”

Accelerating growth in Kenya, East Africa’s largest economy, and its reputation as a relatively stable democracy has made the country a regional hub for companies such as Toyota Motor Corp. and Google and the African headquarters for the United Nations.

Kenya’s prestige has already been shaken by International Criminal Court indictments of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, for their alleged involvement in crimes against humanity. The men are accused of organizing violence after a disputed election in 2007, charges both deny. More than 1,100 people were killed in two months of ethnic and political clashes.

The court Monday allowed Ruto a one-week absence from his trial, which began Sept. 10, to permit him to deal with the crisis.

Kenyatta, who lost a nephew in the attack, vowed to hunt down the attackers.

“We will punish the masterminds swiftly and painfully,” Kenyatta, 51, said in a nationally televised media briefing Sunday. Foreigners including four Britons, two French people, two Canadians, a South African, a Chinese national and Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor are confirmed among the dead.

The Westgate Mall caters to wealthy Kenyans and expatriate employees with about 80 shops that include cafes, a casino, a multi-screen movie theater and a children’s play area. Survivors of the attack hid in air vents, supply closets and washrooms for hours and found different ways to escape, including jumping onto a next-door building, or were escorted by security officials, some clutching children and crying.

World leaders and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have condemned the attacks and offered to help. President Obama called Kenyatta yesterday to express his condolences and reiterate U.S. support to bring the attackers to justice, according to a statement from the White House.