Deadly mall assault caught police off guard

A police officer tries to secure an area inside the Westgate Shopping Centre where gunmen went on a shooting spree in Nairobi September 21, 2013. Sporadic gun shots could be heard hours after the assault started as soldiers surrounded the mall and police and soldiers combed the building, hunting down the attackers shop by shop. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola.

What you need to know:

  • The officer admitted there was no intelligence on the attack.
  • Officers running the operation told the Sunday Nation that at around 3pm, more units were deployed, with the Administration Police Rapid Response Unit being the first specialised unit.

Security personnel appeared to have been caught flat-footed as suspected terrorists struck Westgate Mall killing more than 30 people.

The death toll of the daring attack was expected to rise Saturday evening.

As the armed men struck Nairobi, others reportedly attacked a market in Mogadishu, killing many shoppers and traders in what looked like a coordinated twin terrorist attack.

According to a top police officer attached to Kenya’s anti-terrorism unit, who did not want to be named, the Westgate Mall incident caught security personnel by surprise.

The officer admitted there was no intelligence on the attack.

Initial reports received by the police were that a robbery was taking place at the mall.

The first to respond were a team of flying squad officers and police from Gigiri Division, under which the mall falls.

It took at least an hour before a team of specialised units were deployed to the scene.

Eyewitness accounts indicate that the hooded men, who were armed with automatic machine guns, sauntered into the mall at around midday using three entrances to the shopping complex.

The first group of the armed gang accessed the mall through the gate near Peponi Road, while another used the main entrance, with the third group entering through the parking entrance.

They shot indiscriminately as they entered the mall, causing a stampede as shoppers scampered for safety.

FIRST CASUALTIES

Eyewitnesses claimed that the first causalities were watchmen at the three gates as the suspected terrorist shot their way to the mall. As shoppers scampered for safety, the armed group shut all the exits and entrances.

Children and their parents, who were attending a function organised by a media house, were caught up in the crossfire.

And when specialised officers arrived, the body count was overwhelming to some of them. The officers managed to isolate the terrorists, who by then had shot dozens on the ground floor and were now on the second floor. They were thought to have entered the cinema theatre where they barricaded themselves.

Some of the witnesses claimed that the hooded men asked them to read a message in Arabic. Those who could not read the message were allegedly killed on the spot.
Units were deployed

Officers running the operation told the Sunday Nation that at around 3pm, more units were deployed, with the Administration Police Rapid Response Unit being the first specialised unit.

They were joined by units from the military and the elite GSU Recce squad as both military and police deployed helicopters for surveillance.

Inspector-General of Police David Kimaiyo then arrived at scene followed by Security Cabinet Secretary Joseph ole Lenku.

Mr Kimaiyo, who was in a flak jacket carrying an AK-47 rifle, tried to access the building before his officers stopped him.

He then joined Mr Lenku before relocating to the command post, which was adjacent to Peponi Road.

Another officer who spoke to the Sunday Nation said police have for years warned that Westgate Mall was a high risk target for terrorists.

“They have finally done it and the tragedy is that we did not know,” said the officer, who had gone shopping in the mall before the attack occurred.

He said that together with the people hiding in the toilet, they barricaded the door. He hid his official ID as a precaution.

By the time of going to press, one suspected attacker was reported to have been attacked, while another had been killed.

Police sources also told the Sunday Nation that two elite officers were killed as they searched the mall.

By last evening, at least six suspected terrorists were still holed up in the mall as the elite units prepared for the final assault that was expected to end the siege.

Civilians who were at the scene were asked to leave as government deployed two military armoured vehicles.

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