, NAIROBI, Sep 25 – Kenyan and foreign forensics teams scoured the wreckage of a Nairobi shopping mall Wednesday for bodies and clues after a four-day siege by Islamist gunmen left 67 dead and dozens more missing.
Rescuers and investigators 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-Shabaab 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. The Al-Qaeda-linked group also accused Kenyan troops of using “chemical agents” and explosives 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. Five suspected attackers were also killed, and 11 detained, officials said.
Police said the death toll was provisional, with the Kenyan Red Cross reporting 71 people listed as missing. Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku, however, said only an “insignificant” number of bodies were believed to still be in the mall, and that most were those of the attackers.
Top forensic experts and investigators from Britain, the United States, Israel, Germany, Canada and Interpol had joined the probe, he said, but was unable to answer many remaining questions 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.
“It is an elaborate process. Among the things that are going on now are fingerprinting, DNA identification (and) ballistic examinations,” Lenku said, adding that the evidence collection would take at least a week.
An AFP reporter outside the bullet-riddled mall saw teams with sniffer dogs entering the mall, apparently to check for explosives and victims buried under the rubble of a collapsed part of the building. Forensic teams could take at least a week to gather evidence, Lenku said.
“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,” 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.
“There was blood everywhere,” one soldier who entered the mall during the siege said. “Some bodies were burnt and others rotting.”
The attack was meticulously planned and prepared, with fighters stocked with enough ammunition to hold off Kenyan forces backed by American, British and Israeli agents. According to US officials cited by the New York Times Wednesday, the attackers had blueprints of the mall and had hidden powerful belt-fed machine guns in one of the stores beforehand, perhaps with the help of a corrupt local employee.