NAIROBI - Kenyan troops and rescue workers scoured the wreckage of a Nairobi shopping mall Wednesday for bodies and booby-trapped explosives after a four-day siege by Islamist gunmen left 67 dead and dozens more missing.
Rescuers wore face masks and some soldiers wrapped scarves around their mouths because of an overpowering stench inside the Westgate centre, once the capital’s most upmarket mall. A large part of the complex has collapsed after heavy explosions and a fierce fire.
Across Kenya, flags flew at half mast at the start of three days of official mourning. Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab rebels claimed on Twitter that 137 hostages they had seized all died, figures impossible to verify and higher than the number of people officially registered as missing.
They also accused Kenyan troops of using “chemical agents” to end the stand-off.
President Uhuru Kenyatta announced an end to the 80-hour bloodbath late Tuesday, with the “immense” loss of 61 civilians and six members of the security forces.
Police said the death toll was provisional, with the Kenyan Red Cross listing 63 people as still missing.
Top forensic experts and investigators from Israel, the US and Britain are supporting Kenyan teams, officials said, with many questions remaining over the identity of the attackers, the possible presence of a British woman and American jihadists, and how the cell got such large quantities of weapons and ammunition into the complex.
An AFP reporter outside the bullet-riddled mall saw teams of sniffer dogs, which will check for explosives and victims buried under the rubble of a collapsed part of the building. One rescue worker said he saw “many bodies” inside.
“The army told us we would get access to the bodies yesterday, but then said it was too dangerous for us to go in because of booby traps and because of the part that caved in. We have to get access today,” a Kenyan Red Cross official told AFP.
“The bodies that are still inside the mall will have to be identified from photos. They are now in such a state of decomposition that you can’t put a family member through that,” the official said.
In one of the worst attacks in Kenya’s history, the militants marched into the four-storey, part Israeli-owned mall at midday Saturday, spraying shoppers with automatic weapons fire and tossing grenades.
The attack, which intelligence experts said they had no specific prior warning of, was well planned and prepared, with fighters stocked with enough ammunition to hold off Kenyan forces backed by American, British and Israeli agents.
Close to 200 were wounded in the siege, which saw running battles between militants and security forces in one of Nairobi’s largest and most modern shopping centres. The mall is popular with wealthy Kenyans, diplomats, UN workers and other expatriates, and was packed when the attack began.
The siege developed into a hostage drama with Shebab claiming civilians were being held, and Kenyan special forces described the final stand-off as delicate - with gunman running and hiding in supermarket aisles, store rooms, a cinema and casino and placing booby traps.
Shebab fighters said they carried out the attack in retaliation for Kenya’s two-year battle against the extremists’ bases in the country.
A British national was also arrested in Nairobi, Britain’s foreign office said, without giving further details.
There has been growing media speculation at the possible role of wanted British extremist Samantha Lewthwaite, daughter of a British soldier and widow of suicide bomber Germaine Lindsay, who blew himself up on a London Underground train on July 7, 2005, killing 26 people.
As well as scores of Kenyans - from ordinary workers to the president’s nephew - many of the dead were foreigners, including from Britain, Canada, China, France, the Netherlands, India, South Africa and South Korea.
Five attackers were also killed and 11 suspects detained, Kenyatta said, vowing “full accountability for the mindless destruction, deaths, pain, loss and suffering we have all undergone.”
“These cowards will meet justice, as will their accomplices and patrons, wherever they are,” the president vowed, saying investigations were under way to “establish the nationalities of all those involved”.
Families of those still missing are anxiously waiting for news of their relatives, with the Red Cross and expert counsellors and psychologists setting up tents at Nairobi’s morgue to offer support to sobbing relatives.
Security has also been beefed up across the capital, but away from the burnt out Westgate complex, people in Nairobi appeared to be trying to return, as far as possible, to everyday life.
“It is about getting on and not letting the terrorists win by disturbing our lives any more,” said student James Kamau, reading a newspaper full of photographs of heavily armed Kenyan soldiers staging the final operations to clear the mall of attackers late on Tuesday.