Zee Media Bureau
Nairobi: Verifying witness accounts that gunmen tried to let Muslims go free while killing or taking the others captive at a shopping mall in Kenya, al Shabaab, the armed Somali Islamic extremist group, said on Wednesday that foreigners were a "legitimate target".
In an e-mail exchange with a news agency, al Shabaab said the jihadis "carried out a meticulous vetting process" so the Muslims would not be harmed.
Also Read: Kenya mall attack: As it happened
According to published accounts, witnesses have said the gunmen rounded up people, asked questions about Islam that a Muslim would know and told the Muslims to leave the mall.
At least 18 foreigners were killed, including six Britons, citizens from France, Canada, Trinidad, the Netherlands, Australia, Peru, India, Ghana, South Africa and China, when the militants entered the Westgate Mall on Saturday, slaughtering men, women and children with assault rifles and grenades. The current death toll is 67 and is likely to climb with uncounted bodies remaining in the rubble of the Nairobi mall.
"The Mujahideen carried out a meticulous vetting process at the mall and have taken every possible precaution to separate the Muslims from the Kuffar (disbelievers) before carrying out their attack," al Shabaab said in an e-mail from the HSM Press Office. HSM are the initials of al Shabaab`s full name in Arabic.
Meanwhile, US, British and Israeli agencies are helping Kenya investigate an attack by the Islamist militants that destroyed part of the complex.
After a four-day siege, President Uhuru Kenyatta said on Tuesday troops had defeated the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab group that targeted the shopping centre popular with prosperous Kenyans and foreigners. He declared three days of mourning.
The attack has highlighted the reach of the al Shabaab and the capabilities of its crack unit believed to be behind the bloodshed in Westgate mall, confirming international fears that as long as Somalia remains in turmoil it will be a recruiting and training ground for militant Islam.
The militants stormed the mall, known for its Western shops selling iPads and Nike shoes, in a hail of gunfire and grenades at lunchtime on Saturday. The attack ended on Tuesday when Kenyan troops detonated explosives to get through locked doors inside the mall as they searched for militants or booby traps.
"We have moved to the next phase," Interior Minister Joseph ole Lenku told a news conference.
He said that alongside US, British and Israeli agencies, Kenya was also receiving help from Germany, Canada and the police agency Interpol in the investigation.
He said he did not expect the death toll of 61 civilians, six members of the security forces and five attackers to rise significantly, and that the only bodies still likely to be found were those of slain assailants.
Three floors collapsed after the blasts and a separate fire weakened the structure of the vaulted, marble-tiled building. Officials said the blaze arose from militants lighting mattresses as a decoy.
Kenya has said 10 to 15 attackers launched the raid. Ole Lenku said the investigation would seek to ascertain if there were any females among the assailants, as some witness accounts suggest, and would also see if the groups had rented a store in the mall prior the attack as part of their preparation.
Al Shabaab said it launched the assault to demand Kenya withdraw its troops fighting with African peacekeepers in Somalia. It said hostages were killed when Kenyan troops used gas to clear the mall. Officials dismissed this as "propaganda".
Kenyatta has said Kenyan forces would not leave Somalia.
US President Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, said he believed the country - scene of one of al Qaeda`s first big attacks, in 1998, when a bomb devastated the US embassy in Nairobi - would continue to be a regional pillar of stability.
"The investigators will be looking to see what information they can extract to identify the terrorists and their nationalities, including DNA tests," a senior official from the National Disaster Operation Centre told a news agency, after officials described the attack as a "multinational" operation.
Eleven people suspected of involvement with the well-planned assault are in custody, but Kenyan officials have not said how many, if any, were gunmen taken alive and how many may have been people arrested elsewhere.
It was unclear whether intelligence reports of American or British gunmen would be confirmed. Al Shabaab denied that any women took part, after British sources said the fugitive widow of one of the 2005 London suicide bombers might have some role.
In Washington, US Attorney General Eric Holder said on Wednesday there had been no verification that Americans were involved in the mall attack.
Al Shabaab, which derided Kenya as it was battling militants inside the mall, said action by Kenyan troops using gas were responsible for the "lives of the 137 hostages who were being held by the mujahideen (fighters)."
Ole Lenku said he could not confirm intelligence reports of British and American militants. One Cabinet minister had earlier denied speculation that women were among the guerrillas, but said some had been dressed as women, a possible ploy to get weapons past the mall`s unarmed private security guards.
It is unusual, if not unknown, for Islamist militants to use female fighters: "We have an adequate number of young men who are fully committed & we do not employ our sisters in such military operations #Westgate," al Shabaab said on Twitter.
The group dismissed comments by one Kenyan minister that two or three of the militants were young Somali or Arab Americans.
A British security source said it was possible Samantha Lewthwaite, widow of one of the London suicide bombers of July 7 2005, was involved in the Nairobi siege. "It is a possibility. But nothing definitive or conclusive yet," the source said.
Lewthwaite is wanted in connection with an alleged plot to attack expensive hotels and restaurants in Kenya.
Kenyatta thanked other leaders, including Obama, for their support and used his address to praise the response of the Kenyan people and call for national unity, six months after his election was marked by ethnic tensions.
Many Kenyans agree that the bloodshed has helped foster a greater sense of national unity.
Al Shabaab had threatened revenge since Kenyan troops joined the war against Islamists in its northern neighbour two years ago. The group has created funding, recruiting and training networks in Kenya.
(With Agency inputs)