Kenyan Officials Say They Have Control Of Mall Siege
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. The Kenyan government is sounding a note of victory in the ongoing battle with terrorists at an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi. Kenya's interior minister says the evacuation of hostages has gone, and I'm quoting here, "very, very well." But security forces are still trying to clear the mall of the attackers.
SIEGEL: The battle has been running since Saturday. That's when gunmen associated with the Somali Islamist group al-Shabab entered the mall. They began shooting shoppers, throwing grenades. Today, President Obama made his first public comments about the attack, calling it a terrible outrage. He said the United States is providing law enforcement assistance.
BLOCK: Now, the siege is apparently reaching its end game, with smoke billowing from the rooftop of Nairobi's premiere mall. The death toll is now more than 60, making this Nairobi's worst terror attack since the U.S. embassy bombings of 1998. NPR's Africa correspondent Gregory Warner lives in Nairobi and he's been following this story. He joins me now.
Gregory, what's the scene at the mall and the latest that you're hearing from authorities about the attack?
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: A lot is not known. We know that helicopters have been landing on the mall's rooftop. We know that smoke is billowing from the mall. There seems to be a fire that Kenyan authorities say was started by militants. They lit mattresses on fire, apparently, to distract this rescue operation. We also know that that the interior minister has said that Kenyan authorities are now in control of the mall.
This has been largely similar to the situation for the past 24 hours, leading to questions, why is this taking so long. But three militants have now been killed. That leaves seven to 12 remaining, an unknown number of civilians left inside. One thing we do know about the identity of the militants is that according to the interior minister, it's all men and a multinational force. Now, there's also been speculation that his group includes not just Kenyans, not just other Africans, but also Americans and also British nationals.
Both the American and British government confirmed to us that they are looking into these claims, they take them very seriously, but that it's too early to speculate.
BLOCK: Okay. So the possibility, but not confirmation there.
BLOCK: You've also been talking with survivors, from people who did manage to flee the mall. Tell us a bit about what they've been telling you.
WARNER: Just a few hours ago, I was talking to a young woman. She was telling me a story about hiding out behind a car. She had just been participating in a children's cooking competition, so there were all these kids kind of looking to her - she's just 21 - as their savior. She was describing to me trying to keep a four-year-old quiet while his mother was behind a different car out of reach.
He kept shouting mama, mama. And she had to figure out some way to keep him from alerting the gunmen where they were. So she took a bottle of water out of her purse and she had him play with it. She used other strategies that she had learned as a babysitter before his mother, who was hiding behind a different car, could finally come to rescue him.
It's small stories like this, I think, that are coming out more and more as people feel able to talk that are the most moving.
BLOCK: You have confirmed, at this point, with al-Shabab that they have taken responsibility for this terrorist attack. Why this mall in Nairobi in particular? What makes it such a target?
WARNER: The obvious answer is that a lot of Westerners use this mall, especially attacking a mall on a Saturday, lunch time, when most families would be there. You're trying to hit the maximum number of Westerners. However, most of the victims were Kenyans, so I think it's a mistake to just look at this as a Western target.
You know, this mall is a real aspirational symbol for Nairobians. It's a symbol of cosmopolitan Kenya and, you know, in the United States, we use mall for convenience. In Nairobi it's really about security. It's about going to a certain kind of retail establishment that you couldn't go on the street because it's not safe enough, but you feel safe when you're in this mall.
That sense of safety has now been shattered.
BLOCK: And when you think about the lasting effects, the impact of this attack, where does that take you? What do you think the lasting effect will be?
WARNER: One thing is, is there going to be a backlash on the Somali community? There's a huge Somali community in Kenya and if they are driven back to Somalia before that country is ready for them because they feel unwelcome in Kenya, that could have a huge diplomatic effect. Secondly, the economic impact. You know, this mall - Kenya has seen terror attacks before. It is resilient.
But this attack on this mall may not just be an attack this mall. It may be an attack on a whole shopping culture in Nairobi, which is a huge economic driver.
BLOCK: That's NPR's Africa correspondent, Gregory Warner, in Nairobi. Gregory, thanks so much.
WARNER: Thank you.