JERUSALEM — Kenyan troops, reportedly backed by Israeli agents, launched an assault to end the siege by Somali militants at a Nairobi shopping mall.
A Kenyan security source confirmed that Israelis “are rescuing the hostages and the injured” at the upscale Westgate mall, the French news agency AFP reported. The Israeli Foreign Ministry refused to confirm or deny its agents were involved in the operation, which took place shortly after nightfall on Sunday.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta had said he received “numerous offers of assistance from friendly countries” but that for now it remained a Kenyan operation.
Citing an unidentified Israel security source, Reuters had reported earlier Sunday that Israeli advisers were helping with negotiation strategy but were not involved in “any imminent storming operation.”
The death toll in the attack was at least 62, with police warning that it could rise “much higher,” AFP reported. Some 200 people have been injured in the attack, which began Sept. 21.
Militants from Al Shabab, a Somalia-based terror group linked to Al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the attack.
The five-storey shopping centre features several Israeli-owned outlets, according to wire services. Among them is the ArtCaffe – the attack by eight gunmen took place near the coffee shop and bakery.
One Israeli was injured and three others escaped harm, according to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
A ministry spokesperson said Israelis had not been specifically targeted.
“This time, the story is not about Israel,” she told the New York Times.
The spokesperson told the Times that the ArtCaffe, which is located on the ground floor, is popular with foreigners.
Two Canadians died in the attack, while four Americans were injured, according to the U.S. State Department.
On Monday, Canadian officials were investigating reports a 24-year-old Ontario man was among the attackers.
Al Shabab said the attack was revenge for Kenya’s military operations in Somalia that began nearly two years ago, according to the Times.
Yariv Kedar – who has been living in Nairobi for the past seven years and is the vice-chairman of Amiran Kenya Ltd., an Israeli agriculture company based in Nairobi – was inside the Westgate mall when the attack began and told Israel Hayom, “All of a sudden I heard the sounds of large explosions and shooting from every direction. A group of motorcyclists were at the entrance to the mall and started shooting wildly toward the entrance.”
Kedar, 53, was holding a business meeting with a Kenyan local at one of the mall’s cafés. Westgate mall has four Israeli-owned restaurants, each employing Israelis.
Kedar told Ynet news that he and his Israeli co-worker hid his passport and work papers identifying him as Israeli while trying to avoid kidnap or worse.
“The entire time I was thinking of how to get myself out of that hell,” Kedar said.
“I understood it was a terrorist attack and not a robbery, and I decided to hide my Israeli identity – documents, driver’s licence, passport, ID, etc. I managed to call several senior Israeli representatives with my cellphone and tell them what was happening.”
Islamist terrorists attacked an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya in 2002, and three Israelis were among the 13 casualties. Four years earlier, an Al Qaeda attack killed more than 200 people and destroyed the Nairobi-based American embassy.
With files from jns.org.