NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenyan soldiers sent to protect civilians looted shops while al Qaeda-linked militants killed scores of people during a siege at a Nairobi shopping mall last month, the army admitted on Tuesday.
The head of the Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF) said two members of a special combat unit had been dismissed from the force and jailed and a third was under investigation, though he rejected reports of systematic, large-scale looting by troops.
“Discipline is our core driving point and we are not playing with this issue. That is why we have taken action on these soldiers,” General Julius Karangi told a news briefing, adding the guilty men had stolen mobile phones and cameras.
At least 67 people were killed when Somali al Shabaab militants raided the upmarket Westgate mall on September 21, hurling grenades and spraying bullets at shoppers as a punishment for Kenya sending troops to Somalia.
Kenyans initially praised the soldiers but their support evaporated as shop owners returned to the mall to find their stores ransacked, with many reporting phones, expensive Swiss watches and designer suits stolen.
Cash from tills was also missing as well as jewellery, traders said, while footage from inside the mall uploaded on social media showed one cafe littered with empty beer bottles.
Anger over looting claims intensified when closed circuit television footage obtained by Reuters and others showed soldiers leaving the Nakumatt supermarket with plastic shopping bags.
KDF chiefs initially denied any looting had taken place, saying the soldiers had only taken water bottles from Nakumatt to quench their thirst. A parliamentary inquiry into the Westgate siege completely exonerated the soldiers.
Kenyan media have heavily criticized the army, which until now has been viewed as one of the country’s most professional institutions, rarely mired in the frequent corruption scandals that have tainted the police and civil service over the years.
More than one month after the Westgate attack - the worst on Kenyan soil since al Qaeda bombed the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998, killing more than 200 people - little is still known about how the militants carried out their raid.
Officials say as few as four gunmen may have carried out the attack, down from initial government estimates of 10-15, leaving many Kenyans questioning how such a small group could have held off hundreds of elite soldiers for four days.
Reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by James Macharia and Gareth Jones