Heavy gunfire has been heard at the Nairobi mall where Somali Islamist militants have killed at least 69 people. Kenyan security forces had said they were going to launch an offensive to rescue the remaining hostages.
The siege at the Westgate mall in Nairobi entered its third day on Monday, when a blast of gunfire and a series of small explosions were heard, according to witnesses at the scene.
Kenya's military had announced late Sunday on Twitter that it was launching an operation to end the assault by al Qaeda-linked Somali al-Shabab militants.
"Most of the hostages have been rescued and security forces have taken control of most parts of the building," the Kenya Defence Forces wrote. "All efforts are under way to bring this matter to a speedy conclusion."
The military did not say how many assailants remained in the building.
The Westgate mall was attacked on Saturday afternoon by about a dozen militants who threw grenades and fired machine guns at shoppers, killing 69 people. They have since been holed up in the building with hostages and are surrounded by Kenyan security forces.
The Kenya Red Cross said monday that 63 people are recorded missing. That number is believed to include hostages as well as people killed during the three-day siege. Kenya's Interior Minister Joseph Lenku said that "a few" hostages remain in the mall, but would not give exact figures.
Al-Shabab has claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in retaliation for the Kenyan military's involvement in fighting the Islamist group in Somalia. Upon entering the shopping center, the militants reportedly specifically targeted non-Muslims.
In an audio statement carried by a website linked to the group, al-Shabab threatened to "kill the hostages" if the military or police used force against them.
Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta promised in a nationwide address Sunday that the attackers would "not get away with their despicable acts."
"We will punish the masterminds swiftly, and indeed very painfully," he said, revealing that his nephew and nephew's fiancee were among those killed.
Death toll could rise
The Westgate mall, which is located in a wealthy area of Nairobi where many United Nations workers and diplomats live, is frequented by many foreign nationals in the city.
Both Kenyans and foreigners were confirmed dead in the attack, with British, French, Indian, Canadian, Dutch, Ghanaian and Chinese citizens reported among those killed. More than 175 people were injured in the siege, and officials said the death toll could rise after security forces have had the opportunity to conduct a complete search of the complex.
It is the deadliest attack in Kenya since 200 people were killed in the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi by al Qaeda's East Africa cell.
On Monday, the International Criminal Court suspended the atrocities trial of Kenya's vice president, William Ruto, for one week while the country delas with the hostage situation.
dr/mkg (AFP, AP, Reuters)