Kenya widens mall attack probe, alert for UK ‘White Widow’


Interpol issued a wanted persons alert at Kenya's request on Thursday for a British woman who has been cited by British police as a possible suspect in the attack on a Nairobi shopping mall that killed at least 72 people.

The alert was issued as Kenyan police broadened the investigation into the weekend raid by the al Qaeda-aligned Somali al Shabaab group, the worst such assault since the U.S. Embassy was bombed in the capital by al Qaeda in 1998.

Interpol – which has joined agencies from Britain, the United States, Israel and others in the Kenyan investigation of the wrecked mall – did not say when Nairobi requested a so-called “red alert” notice for Samantha Lewthwaite, 29.

The widow of one of the suicide bombers who attacked London's transport system in 2005 is believed to have evaded arrest two years ago in the port city of Mombasa, where she is wanted in connection with a plot to bomb hotels and restaurants.

Interpol's “red alert” cites the previous 2011 plot.

Police in Mombasa, a tourist hub, said they were also tracking four suspected militants, following the siege of the swanky Westgate mall in Nairobi which militants stormed on Saturday armed with assault rifles and grenades.

The mall attack has demonstrated the reach of al Shabaab beyond Somalia, where Kenyan troops have joined other African forces, driving the group out of major urban areas, although it still controls swathes of the countryside.

Al Shabaab stormed the mall to demand Kenya pull its troops out, which President Uhuru Kenyatta has ruled out.

Many details of the assault are unclear, including the identity of the attackers who officials said numbered about a dozen. Speculation that Lewthwaite, dubbed the “White Widow” in the British press, was triggered by witness accounts that one of raiders was a white woman.

FORENSIC WORK

But Kenya's government and Western officials have cautioned that they cannot confirm the reports she was involved, or even that there were any women participants in the raid.

The government said five of the attackers were killed, along with at least 61 civilians and six security personnel.

Eleven suspects have been arrested in relation to the attack, but it is not clear if any took part.

Although the Red Cross lists 71 missing people, the government said it does not expect a big rise in the death toll.

Part of the Westgate mall collapsed in the siege, burying some bodies and hindering investigations, although forensic experts have started work while soldiers search for explosives. Officials said some blasts on Thursday were controlled ones.

“The army are still in there with the forensic teams,” said one senior police officer near the mall.

Mombasa police said they were tracking a network of suspects linked to al Shabaab in the coastal region, home to many of Kenya's Muslims, who make up about 10 percent of the nation's 40 million people. Most Kenyans are Christians.

“We have four suspects within Mombasa who we are closely watching. They came back to the country after training in Somalia,” country police commander Robert Kitur told Reuters.

Another counter-terrorism officer, who asked not to be named, also said four suspects were being tracked and added that two well-armed suspected militants killed in an August operation could have been planning a similar attack in Mombasa.

“I will be surprised if they don't link the Nairobi attackers to those terrorists we killed in Mombasa,” he added.

DENTED IMAGE

The mall attack has dented Kenya's image as a tourist destination, damaging a vital source of revenues. But rating agency Moody's said that although the attack was “credit negative” it would not affect foreign direct investment or a planned Kenyan Eurobond later this year.

In 1998, al Qaeda bombed the U.S. Embassy, an attack that killed more than 200 people. Since then, Kenya has faced other smaller attacks, many claimed by al Shabaab, particularly along the border region next to Somalia.

On Thursday, al Shabaab claimed responsibility for killing two policemen in an assault on a administrative post in Mandera county next to Somalia. The border has been closed.

Experts say the insecure border has allowed Kenyan sympathizers of al Shabaab to cross into Somalia for training.

“They are coming back because our armed forces destroyed their training ground there,” said Kitur.

The coastal region also has been the target of attacks by a separatist movement, the Mombasa Republican Council, although that group has long denied it has connections with al Shabaab.

Additional reporting by James Macharia, Duncan Miriri, Richard Lough, Kevin Mwanza and Edmund Blair in Nairobi, Joseph Akwiri in Mombasa and Carolyn Cohn in London and Alexandria Sage in Paris; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Angus MacSwan

Netayahu offers condolences to Kenya as Nairobi mall crisis nears end


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered his condolences to Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta over the al-Qaida-linked terror attack on a mall in Nairobi.

“Israel empathizes with the Kenyan people’s pain and with your own personal loss due to the terror attack. We value your nation’s determined struggle against terrorism,” Netanyahu said in a phone conversation on Monday night, according to his office.

The call came as security forces at the upscale Westgate mall worked to secure the area, free hostages and apprehend the terrorists.

At least 62 people are known killed in the attack and siege which began on Saturday afternoon, though the death toll could rise once the siege is completely over.

An explosion and gunfire were heard in the mall at about 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, the Associated Press reported, despite Kenyan government reports that the crisis was over.

Kenya’s Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed said that two to three Americans and a British citizen of Arab origin were among the gunmen.

The French news agency AFP reported that Israel agents were involved in the rescue operations, something that was neither confirmed nor denied by Israeli officials.

One Israeli was injured and three others escaped harm, according to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Several Americans also were injured.

Militants from al Shabab, a Somalia-based terror group linked to al-Qaida, claimed responsibility for the attack. Al Shabab said the attack was revenge for Kenya’s military operations in Somalia that began nearly two years ago.

Smoke pours from Kenya mall as forces ‘close in’


Thick smoke poured from the besieged Nairobi mall where Kenyan officials said their forces were closing in on Islamists holding hostages on Monday, the third day since Somalia's al Shabaab launched a raid that has killed at least 62 people.

It remained unclear how many gunmen and hostages were still cornered in the Westgate shopping center, after a series of loud explosions and gunfire were followed by black smoke billowing from one part of the complex.

Kenya's interior minister told a news conference militants had set fire to mattresses in a supermarket on the mall's lower floors. The ministry later said the blaze was under control.

Two attackers had been killed on Monday, the minister added. Another assailant had died on Saturday.

The gunmen came from “all over the world”, Kenya's military chief said, adding: “We are fighting global terrorism here.”

President Uhuru Kenyatta dismissed on Sunday a demand that he pull Kenyan forces out of neighboring Somalia.

Kenyatta, who lost one of his own nephews in Saturday's bloodbath, said he would not relent in a “war on terror” in Somalia, where Kenyan troops have pushed al Shabaab onto the defensive over the past two years as part of an African Union-backed peacekeeping mission across the northern border.

Security officials near the mall said the explosions heard at lunchtime were caused by Kenyan forces blasting a way in, but Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku said he had no information on any blasts and a military spokesman declined to comment when asked if militants had set off charges.

Al Shabaab warned it would kill hostages if police moved in.

Echoing other officials, who have highlighted successes in rescuing hundreds of trapped people after Saturday's massacre, Ole Lenku said most of the complex was under the authorities' control and escape was impossible.

A senior police officer said the authorities, who have been receiving advice from Western and Israeli experts, were “closing in”. Ole Lenku said: “We are doing anything reasonably possible, cautiously though, to bring this process to an end.

“The terrorists could be running and hiding in some stores, but all floors now are under our control.”

Ole Lenku said all the attackers were men, after witnesses had reported seeing women brandishing arms in the attack.

But three sources, one an intelligence officer and two soldiers, told Reuters that one of the killed attackers was a white woman. This is likely to fuel speculation that she is the wanted widow of one of the suicide bombers who attacked London's transport system in 2005.

Asked if it was Samantha Lewthwaite, called the “white widow” by the British press, the intelligence officer said: “We don't know.”

CINEMA

President Uhuru Kenyatta refused on Sunday to pull Kenyan troops out of Somalia, where they have pushed al Shabaab on to the defensive over the past two years as part of an African Union-backed peacekeeping mission across the northern border.

Asked on Sunday about whether captives had been wired with explosives, he declined comment. Kenyatta said all the gunmen were in one place. But a Kenyan soldier told reporters near the mall on Monday that the assailants and hostages were dispersed.

“They're in the cinema hall, with hostages. There are other terrorists in different parts,” the soldier said. “They are on the upper floors, the third and fourth floors.”

Previously, officials had indicated that the militants may have been grouped in a supermarket on the lower floors.

The president, who lost a nephew in Saturday's killing, vowed to hold firm in the “war on terror” in Somalia and said, cautiously, that Kenyan forces could end the siege.

“I assure Kenyans that we have as good a chance to successfully neutralize the terrorists as we can hope for,” he said. “We will punish the masterminds swiftly and painfully.”

It was unclear who the assailants were. Al Shabaab – the name means “The Lads” in Arabic – has thousands of Somali fighters but has also attracted foreigners to fight Western and African Union efforts to establish a stable government.

A London man, Jermaine Grant, faces trial in Kenya for possession of explosives. Police suspect an al Shabaab plot to attack restaurants and hotels used by Westerners and have been hunting for another Briton, Samantha Lewthwaite, the widow of a suicide bomber who took part in the London 7/7 attacks of 2005.

Some British newspapers speculated on the role the “White Widow” might have played at Westgate. The term “black widow” has been used by Chechen militants in Russia for women taking part in bombings and assaults after the deaths of their husbands.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, confirming that at least three Britons were already among the dead, said: “We should prepare ourselves for further bad news.”

U.S. President Barack Obama called Kenyatta to offer condolences and support. Israel, whose citizens own stores in the Israeli-built mall and have been targeted by Islamists in Kenya before, said Israeli experts were also helping.

As well as Kenyans, foreigners including a French mother and daughter and two diplomats, from Canada and Ghana, were killed. Ghanaian Kofi Awoonor was a renowned poet. Other victims came from China and the Netherlands. Five Americans were wounded.

Kenya's president, son of post-colonial leader Jomo Kenyatta, is facing his first major security challenge since being elected in March. The crisis might have an impact on his troubles with the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

Judges there let his vice president, William Ruto, fly home for a week, suspending a trial on Monday in which Ruto is charged with crimes against humanity for allegedly coordinating violence after an election in 2007. Kenyatta is due to face trial on similar charges later this year.

MULTINATIONAL AFFAIR

Ole Lenku acknowledged “support” from foreign governments but said Kenyan forces were managing without it so far. Western powers have been alarmed by a spread of al Qaeda-linked violence across Africa, from Nigeria and Mali in the west, though Algeria and Libya in the north to Somalia and Kenya in the east.

Nairobi saw one of the first major attacks by al Qaeda, when it killed more than 200 people by bombing the U.S. embassy in 1998. While some analysts said the latest raid may show al Shabaab lashing out in its weakness after the successes of Kenyan troops in Somalia, the risk of further international violence remains.

Julius Karangi, chief of the Kenyan general staff, called the gunmen “a multinational collection”. He said they had set the fire as a distraction but could now have no hope of evading capture: “If they wish, they can now surrender,” he said.

“We have no intention whatsoever of going backwards.”

On Sunday, President Kenyatta said 10 to 15 assailants were holding an unknown number of hostages in one location, apparently the supermarket. On Monday, it was not clear whether they may be more dispersed, including on the upper floors.

A spokesman for al Shabaab warned they would kill hostages if Kenyan security forces tried to storm their positions. “The mujahideen will kill the hostages if the enemies use force,” Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage said in an audio statement posted online.

On Twitter, the group posted: “They've obtained large amounts of ammunition and are, by the blessings of Allah alone, still firm and still dominating the show.”

The Red Cross and Ole Lenku put the death toll so far at 62. The Red Cross said it had also recorded 63 people as missing.

Survivors' tales of the assault by squads of attackers throwing grenades and spraying automatic fire have left little doubt the hostage-takers are willing to go on killing. Previous raids around the world, including at a desert gas plant in Algeria nine months ago, suggest they are also ready to die.

SECURITY CHALLENGE

It remains unclear who the assailants are. Al Shabaab – the name means “The Lads” in Arabic – has thousands of Somali fighters but has also attracted foreigners to fight Western and African Union efforts to establish a stable government.

A London man, Jermaine Grant, faces trial in Kenya for possession of explosives. Police suspect an al Shabaab plot to attack restaurants and hotels used by Westerners and have been hunting for the “white widow” Lewthwaite.

The term “black widow” has been used by Chechen militants for women taking part in attacks after their husbands have died.

Kenya's president, son of post-colonial leader Jomo Kenyatta, is facing his first major security challenge since being elected in March. The crisis might have an impact on his troubles with the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

Judges there let his vice president, William Ruto, fly home for a week, suspending a trial on Monday in which Ruto is charged with crimes against humanity for allegedly coordinating violence after an election in 2007. Kenyatta is due to face trial on similar charges in November.

Al Shabaab's siege underlined its ability to cause major disruption with relatively limited resources, even after Kenyan and other African troops drove it from Somali cities.

“While the group has grown considerably weaker in terms of being able to wage a conventional war, it is now ever more capable of carrying out asymmetric warfare,” said Abdi Aynte, director of Mogadishu's Heritage Institute of Policy Studies.

Others said divisions within the loose al Shabaab movement may have driven one faction to carry out the kind of high-profile attack that may help win new support.

Al Shabaab's last big attack abroad was a double bombing in Uganda that killed 77 people watching soccer on TV in 2010.

Reporting by Edmund Blair, James Macharia, Duncan Miriri, Richard Lough, Drazen Jorgic, Humphrey Malalo, Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Kevin Mwanza in Nairobi, Pascal Fletcher in Johannesburg, Feisal Omar and Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu, Roberta Rampton in Washington, Anthony Deutsch at The Hague, Myra MacDonald in Tbilisi and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by Edmund Blair and Alastair Macdonald; editing by David Stamp