Kenya mall attack: Questions build as investigators search the rubble

A coffin is carried during a funeral procession for Selima Merali, 41, and her daughter Nuriana, 15, who were killed in the Westgate mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya.
(Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Forensic experts were sifting through the rubble at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall Wednesday, looking for clues to the identities of the militants who attacked the complex, as shocked Kenyans demanded to know how 10 to 15 gunmen held off security forces for more than three days.

A crowd-sourced list of 85 unanswered questions, headed “We The People,” was circulating Wednesday on the Web, demanding to know how many hostages died in the siege, what caused three floors to collapse and whether any of the assailants escaped disguised as hostages.

“Why won’t they tell us how many hostages were rescued or where they were taken??? Why so much secrecy!” read question No. 35 on the list.


Meanwhile, Kenyans began three days of national mourning for the at least 61 civilians and six soldiers killed in the attack, for which the Somali militant group Shabab claimed responsibility. Flags flew at half-staff around the country.

The Kenyan Red Cross Society said 71 people were still missing.

Kenyan Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku offered few answers at a news briefing Wednesday.

He repeated that authorities believe an “insignificant” number of civilian bodies remain under the rubble and urged Kenyans to be patient and wait for the results of the forensic investigations, which will take at least a week.

He said there was no confirmation of the identities of the attackers, after reports that a British woman and two or three Americans were involved. Afetsi Awoonor, the son of Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor, who was killed in the attack, told the BBC that the gunmen he saw were white and wearing eye goggles and bulletproof vests.

Lenku said forensic experts, assisted by specialists from the United States, Israel, Britain, Germany and Canada, were carrying out DNA, fingerprint and ballistics analysis at the mall.

Engineers were also examining the structure to determine what caused three floors to collapse Monday. Some government officials blamed a fire they said was set by the gunmen, although Kenyan security forces detonated a series of huge explosions to gain access.

Analysts believe the attack was carefully prepared and that the militants smuggled heavy weapons into the mall in advance of the assault. Some reports suggested the terrorist group had hired a shop and used it to conceal weapons, explosives and other equipment. Lenku said there was no information about that claim.

“That is a rumor we heard just like you and we will treat it as such,” he said at a short news briefing, before cutting short journalists’ questions.

Writing in the Daily Nation, analyst Macharia Gaitho said updates from Kenyan security forces throughout the siege had underplayed the severity of the situation.

“Most of the time they had only inane information and were intent on retweeting each other’s messages, congratulating themselves and appealing to the media and bloggers to stop giving out unofficial information,” he said.

“That a bunch of [a] dozen or so terrorists could hold at bay all the Kenya Defense Forces and the Kenya Police plus the military advisors or special forces (it was never clear which) from Israel, the United States and Britain could throw at them should have sent the message that the picture was not as rosy as painted.”

Eleven suspects were arrested at the airport during the siege, according to Kenyan security officials. They said 10 to 15 gunmen carried out the attack and five were killed, leaving as many as 10 unaccounted for. Some witnesses claimed to have seen gunmen blend into the crowd and leave the mall with fleeing civilians.

Earlier Wednesday, the Shabab claimed on Twitter that the bodies of 137 hostages were buried in the rubble of collapsed sections of the building.

The militants also claimed that Kenyan authorities had lobbed “chemical agents” into the mall, killing dozens of hostages, as the effort to retake the shopping center reached its climax.

Government spokesman Manoah Esipisu rejected the accusations.

“Al Shabab is known for wild allegations, and there is absolutely no truth to what they’re saying,” he told the Associated Press.


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Twitter: @latimesdixon

Special correspondent Soi reported from Nairobi and Times staff writer Dixon from Johannesburg, South Africa.