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Kenya mourns as searchers scour mall for siege victims

Running battles between militants and Kenyan security forces in the complex lead to the death of 67 people and injury of 200 others during the four-day siege

AFP , Wednesday 25 Sep 2013
Kenya Defence Forces soldiers comb the rooftop of the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi September 24, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)
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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 to cover what they said was an overpowering stench inside the Westgate centre, once one of the capital's most upmarket malls. A large part of the centre has collapsed after heavy explosions and a fierce fire.

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.

Across Kenya, flags flew at half mast at the start of three days of official mourning.

"Leading forensic experts" from other countries including America, Britain and Israel are supporting Kenyan teams, civil service chief Francis Kimemia said.

An AFP reporter outside the bullet-riddled Westgate mall also saw teams of sniffer dogs, which will check for explosives and victims buried under the rubble of a collapsed part of the building.

"They are checking for any potential explosive devices left behind," a security source said, adding that specialist remote-controlled demining robots were on hand.

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.

Somalia's Al Qaeda-linked Shebab rebels said the group carried out the attack in retaliation for Kenya's two-year battle against the extremists' bases in the country.

Close to 200 were wounded in the four-day siege, which saw running battles between militants and security forces in the complex, Nairobi's largest shopping centre and popular with wealthy Kenyans, diplomats, UN workers and other expatriates.

As well as scores of Kenyans -- from ordinary workers to the president's nephew -- many of the dead were foreigners, including six Britons, two Canadians, a Chinese woman, a Dutch woman, two French women, two Indians, a South African and a South Korean.

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."

Kenyatta is due to hold a special cabinet meeting with his national security council later Wednesday to "take stock of lessons learnt and formulate the way forward," Kimemia added.

Families of those still missing are anxiously waiting for news of their relatives, with the Red Cross and expert counsellors and psychologists setting up a centre in Nairobi's central park to offer support.

The siege developed into a hostage drama with Shebab claiming civilians were being held, and Kenyan special forces describing the stand-off as delicate -- with gunman running and hiding in supermarket aisles, store rooms, a cinema and casino and placing booby traps.

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 back, 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.

"For those not directly mourning their family members killed, we should show people we are not going to let this change us."

Kenyatta said that forensic teams were working to also "establish the nationalities of all those involved" amid reports Americans and a British woman were among the insurgents.

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.

Kenyan newspapers called for the government to provide people with as much information about those killed as soon as possible.

"The government should just tell us the truth," The Star newspaper wrote. "They should not try to sanitise... a terrible situation. The public will not blame them."

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