* Somali Islamists linked to al Qaeda claim attack
* Group wants withdrawal of Kenyan troops from Somalia
* President loses relatives in raid, vows punishment
* Volleys of gunfire, helicopters swoop low over mall
By Richard Lough and Edmund Blair
NAIROBI, Sept 22 Islamist militants were holding
hostages on Sunday at a shopping mall in Nairobi, where at least
68 people were killed in an attack by Somalia's al Shabaab
The al Qaeda-affiliated movement demanded Kenya pull troops
out of its northern neighbour, where they have pushed al Shabaab
onto the defensive over the past two years.
There was no word of other demands from the dozen or so
gunmen - and possibly women - said to be barricaded in a
supermarket with an unknown number of captives. One Kenyan TV
station said 30 were still being held, nearly 36 hours after
Saturday's devastating assault.
Brief volleys of gunfire and a blast interrupted a day of
stalemate. A Reuters correspondent saw security personnel on the
move and, as dusk closed in, two helicopters swooped low over
the Westgate shopping centre, which has several Israeli-owned
outlets and is frequented by prosperous Kenyans and foreigners.
But despite a Twitter comment from a Kenyan security agency
suggesting an imminent operation, the evening passed with little
sign of action.
Kenya's president, vowing not to abandon the "war on terror"
in Somalia, was cautious about the outcome, saying only that the
chances of the attackers being "neutralised" were "as good ...
as we can hope for".
"We will punish the masterminds swiftly and painfully," he
said. In addition to the dead, more than 175 people were wounded
in an attack that began around the middle of the day on
Saturday, when the mall was heaving with customers.
Previous such raids, in Russia, the 2008 Mumbai attacks or
January's al Qaeda assault on an Algerian gas plant, have
generally ended with many hostages losing their lives.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, confirming at least
three Britons were dead, said: "We should prepare ourselves for
further bad news."
U.S. President Barack Obama called Kenyan President Uhuru
Kenyatta to express condolences for the "terrorist attack" and
offered support to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Dutch and Chinese citizens were also killed in the attack
claimed by al shabaab, as were a French mother and daughter and
two diplomats from Canada and Ghana. U.S. citizens were wounded.
For hours after Saturday's attack, the dead had been strewn
around tables of unfinished meals. At one burger restaurant, a
man and woman lay in a final embrace before their bodies were
removed. Only after Kenyan forces moved in could many shoppers
escape, some after a full day hiding in terror.
The focus of attention on Sunday was the mall's branch of
Nakumatt supermarket, one of Kenya's biggest chains. A Red Cross
volunteer said nine more bodies were taken out of the store late
on Sunday, which the Red Cross said raised the toll to 68.
Volunteers said they believed more corpses were still
inside, unreachable for now.
'WE SHALL NOT RELENT'
Scores of Kenyans gathered at a site overlooking the mall,
awaiting what they expected to be a violent denouement. "They
entered through blood, that's how they'll leave," said Jonathan
Maungo, a private security guard.
President Kenyatta, facing his first major security
challenge since being elected in March, said he lost a nephew
and the man's fiancée in the raid and vowed to defeat the
He urged wealthy governments not to warn their citizens
against visiting a country heavily dependent on tourist income,
while insisting he would not pull out Kenyan troops from
Somalia: "We shall not relent on the war on terror."
Saying all the gunmen were now in one place, Kenyatta added:
"I assure Kenyans that we have as good a chance to successfully
neutralise the terrorists as we can hope for."
But the heavily armed and well disciplined attackers, still
unidentified, had shown no hesitation in killing civilians.
The spokesman for al Shabaab's military operations told
Reuters in Somalia his group had nothing to fear: "Where will
Uhuru Kenyatta get the power with which he threatened us?" said
Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab.
The assault was the biggest single attack in Kenya since al
Qaeda's East Africa cell bombed the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in
1998, killing more than 200 people.
Al Shabaab's siege underlined its ability to cause major
disruptions with relatively limited resources, despite having
lost its hold on Somali cities after African troops moved in.
"In terms of capacity, while the group has grown
considerably weaker in terms of being able to wage a
conventional war, it is now ever more capable of carrying out
asymmetric warfare," said Abdi Aynte, director of Mogadishu's
Heritage Institute of Policy Studies.
COMBING THE MALL
Kenyatta, who said Kenya was still trying to establish
conclusively who was responsible, said women were among the 10
to 15 attackers. Asked whether hostages had explosives strapped
to them, he said he would not comment on operational issues.
Kenya's deputy president, William Ruto, asked judges at the
International Criminal Court in The Hague to allow him to return
home to help deal with the siege and its aftermath.
He and Kenyatta face charges of crimes against humanity for
their alleged role in coordinating deadly violence after the
contested 2007 elections, when they ran in rival camps. Both
deny the charges. They won a vote on the same ticket in March.
The dead in Saturday's assault included children, and the
wounded ranged in age from 2 to 78. More than 1,000 people were
evacuated by security forces combing the mall, littered with
shattered glass and pools of blood.
An Israeli security source said Israeli advisers were at the
scene helping Kenya work out how to end the siege.
Shortly after shots were fired on Sunday, Kenyan troops in
camouflage ran below a restaurant terrace along the front of the
building that had buzzed with customers when the attack began.
Kenya's National Disaster Operation Centre referred to a
"major engagement" on its Twitter account when a blast was
heard. "It's going on, it's going good," one Kenyan soldier who
had been in the mall on Sunday told reporters as he left the
scene. But later in the evening, the situation appeared calm.
After emerging on Sunday morning from a hiding place under
vehicle in the basement car park, a woman, giving her name as
Cecilia, told Reuters by telephone she had seen three men in the
attack who looked like Arabs, judging by their skin colour.
"They were shooting from the exit ramp, shooting
everywhere," she said. "I saw people being shot all around me,
some with blood pouring from bad wounds. I was just praying,
praying 'God, keep me alive' and that my day hadn't come."
Witnesses said the attackers had AK-47 rifles and wore
ammunition belts. One militant was shot and arrested early on in
the siege, but died shortly afterwards.
Kenya sent troops across its northern border into Somalia in
October 2011 to pursue militants whom it blamed for kidnapping
tourists and attacking its security forces.
Al Shabaab's last big attack outside Somalia was a twin
assault in nearby Uganda, targeting people watching the World
Cup final on television in Kampala in 2010, killing 77 people.