Kenyan security forces were locked in a fierce battle with Somali Islamist gunmen inside an upmarket Nairobi shopping mall yesterday as huge explosions and a barrage of heavy gunfire echoed out of the complex.
Thick black smoke billowed from the Westgate mall as officials said the siege - which began on Saturday and during which gunmen massacred 62 people and took dozens more hostage - was close to being resolved.
"We think the operation will come to an end soon," Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku said outside the vast part-Israeli-owned complex, which is popular with expatriates and wealthy Kenyans.
"We are in control of all the floors, the terrorists are running and hiding in some stores ... there is no room for escape," he said, adding that some hostages had been freed, without giving specific numbers. Three of the gunmen had been killed.
The Kenyan Red Cross said at least 63 people were recorded missing, with the number thought to include hostages as well as those possibly killed or still hiding. About 200 people were wounded, officials said.
Kenyans and foreigners were among those confirmed dead, including British, French, Canadians, Indians, a Ghanaian, a South African and a Chinese woman.
Somalia's al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab insurgents have claimed the attack, which began when the gunmen - some wearing women's clothing - marched into the complex, firing grenades and automatic weapons and sending panicked shoppers fleeing.
Kenyan police said yesterday that they had arrested more than 10 suspects for questioning over the attack.
Kenyan army chief Julius Karangi said the gunmen came from "all over the world … we are fighting global terrorism here".
Despite officials saying that all the attackers were men, three sources said that one of the attackers killed was a white woman, fuelling speculation that it was Samantha Lewthwaite, the wanted widow of one of the suicide bombers who attacked London's transport system in 2005.
A spokesman for al-Shabab had warned they would kill hostages if the Kenyan security forces, who are being assisted by Western and Israeli experts, tried to storm their positions.
Dark plumes of smoke rose from the mall for more than an hour after four large explosions rocked the upscale neighbourhood.
Security officials near the scene had said the blasts heard at lunchtime were caused by Kenyan forces blasting a way in after President Uhuru Kenyatta had on Sunday dismissed a demand that he pull Kenyan forces out of neighbouring Somalia.
Reflecting the breadth of the crisis, judges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague took the unusual step yesterday of suspending for one week the trial of Kenya's deputy president, William Ruto, on charges of crimes against humanity so that he could return home to assist in the government's response.
Ruto has pleaded not guilty to three charges relating to the violence that rocked the country after the disputed 2007 election.
Agence-France Presse, Reuters, Associated Press