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Mall tenants’ shock over looted shops

Sunday September 29 2013

A military officer sits on the back of a truck as it drives past the Westgate mall in Nairobi on September 28, 2013. VThe government Sunday admitted that there had been looting at Westgate Mall during the rescue operation last week. Photo/AFP

A military officer sits on the back of a truck as it drives past the Westgate mall in Nairobi on September 28, 2013. VThe government Sunday admitted that there had been looting at Westgate Mall during the rescue operation last week. Photo/AFP 

By NATION TEAM
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The government Sunday admitted that there had been looting at Westgate Mall during the rescue operation last week.

Interior Cabinet secretary Joseph ole Lenku said three businesses had reported break-ins, something of an understatement given the condition of business in the ruined mall.

Between around 5pm on Saturday, September 21, when the last of the police and photographers were bundled out and yesterday, when shop owners returned, businesses appear to have been systematically ransacked and looted.

A jeweller and a watch shop, which stocks Rado watches, just next to the main entrance, have empty cartons strewn all over. The mannequins, which had been dressed with expensive jewellery, have been stripped bare.

Banks, forex bureaus have had their doors shot up and broken into. The shelves of Nakumatt, which is gutted, appear to be bare.

A big hole has been punched through the mall, which means the children’s star jump equipment on the roof is now on the basement.

The rescue operation was conducted initially by the Kenya Police, the Red Cross and neighbourhood vigilantes.

On Saturday afternoon, everybody else was cleared out of the place and the Kenya Defence Forces took over.

“The cases of those who have reported break-ins are being investigated,” Mr Lenku said.

Merchants, who returned to the mall yesterday, said they found most of their premises had been vandalised.

But Mr Lenku maintained that most of the traders had “confirmed that having inspected their businesses, they found most of their wares intact”.

“The government takes very seriously allegations of looting and that those found to have engaged in the looting will be prosecuted,” Mr Lenku went on, pointing out that three suspected looters are already in police custody.

Even more serious, the Nation learnt that the scene of crime was contaminated, perhaps beyond all recovery. There is extensive flooding, the place is either shot up, blown up or burnt.

KDF chief General Julius Karangi said the fire in the mall was started by the terrorists lighting mattresses and throwing them downstairs in an escape attempt. Apparently, the burning mattresses set the mall on fire and caused an explosion whose plume of flames and smoke could be seen miles away.

Another military story was that soldiers set off explosives, and asked police ringing the place to fire their weapons, to distract and kill a terrorist sniper who had pinned them down for days.

But the biggest problem is the absence of hostages, or their bodies, and those of the terrorists that the minister himself had said were shot in combat with the KDF.

About 60 people are still missing and they were thought to have been taken hostage, but they could not be accounted for after the four-day siege. According to the government, there are probably were no hostages. “We think that, unless forensic investigations show otherwise we don’t think there are any hostages,” he said.

Police yesterday arrested one person and recovered one of the vehicles suspected to have been used to ferry the attackers to the shopping mall.

Inside the vehicle, Mr Lenku revealed, was a cache of weapons and other “crucial items” he said will provide crucial leads that could be used to get to the bottom of the incident.

“So far the police have recorded statements from 156 witnesses,” he said.

He, however, did not give details of the suspects arrested, saying doing so might prejudice the ongoing investigations of the shopping mall attack and massacre of 67 shoppers.

RECOVERED CRUCIAL ITEMS

Mr Lenku, while giving an update on investigations, said: “We have recovered crucial items in the vehicles that are providing good and credible leads. Some of the items found in the vehicle include an assortment of weapons.”

“Nine persons are already in custody…more suspects continue to be arrested…we will update you with their identities later as it is premature to release these details now as that might prejudice ongoing investigations.”

After the Saturday attack, Mr Lenku had said there were about 30 hostages being held by a band of 10 to 15 terrorists.

Yesterday, he said no suspects who were inside the mall when the military operation started had escaped. But there are credible reports that the terrorists, who appeared to know the mall better than the authorities, may have walked out through a large tunnel under the mall.

Security officials who spoke to the Nation suspect the Al-Shabaab killer gang that repulsed an elite military squad may have escaped through an underground tunnel that connects the mall and an adjacent building, about 100 metres away.

The Nation spoke to people who walked through it after the siege was over, who described it as big enough for an adult to walk comfortably. As a matter of fact, a reporter from a British tabloid is photographed in it next to a big hole in the wall.

“We want to assure the country that we completely secured any points of exit. The area was completely secure. There is no way the terrorists could have escaped through the tunnel,” Mr Lenku said.

Of those killed, 57 are Kenyans, two French, while Ghana, Canada, Korea, Australia, South Africa, Peru and the Netherlands each lost one of their citizens in the attack.

Sunday, Mr Lenku maintained his earlier stance that police have no record of any missing persons in relation to the terror attack and appealed to humanitarian organisations and Kenyans to forward any such information to the authorities.

He urged the US government, which on Saturday issued a fresh travel advisory warning its citizens of the dangers of visiting the country in the wake of the terror attack, to withdraw it.

“We believe that the travel advisory is counterproductive in the fight against terrorism…it is uncalled for, unnecessary and unfriendly,” he said.

“The travel advisory at this stage is not helping our collective efforts to fight global terrorism. We cannot and shall not allow terrorists to instill fear in our people,” he said.

“And so, we request the US, as a friend of Kenya, to lift the travel advisory. Allow your citizens to travel to Kenya as other countries such as the European Union have done,” he said.

The minister said there have been numerous terror attacks around the globe and traditionally, friendly countries had not done anything to increase the pain of the victim country.

He said security in the country had been heightened.

Reported by Fred Mukinda [email protected] and Dave Opiyo [email protected]