Al-Shabaab threatens to kill hostages

The militant group warns that if force is used by Kenyan authorities, hostages will be killed.

A policeman carrys a baby to safety after Somalia's al-Shabaab terrorists stormed the Westgate Mall and sprayed gunfire on shoppers and staff in Nairobi, Kenya on 21 September 2013. Picture: AFP

NAIROBI- Kenyan officials say the fate of hostages inside Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall, which has been under siege by Somali militant group al-Shabaab since Saturday, remains unclear despite earlier statements that most hostages had been rescued.

Sixty eight people have died in the attack and at least 150 others have been wounded.

South African businessman James Thomas from Cape Town was among the victims of the attack.

Military helicopters have been circling the mall this morning and sporadic bursts of gunfire and loud blasts have been heard.

Al-Shabaab has issued a warning that hostages will be killed if force is used, according to an audio statement carried by a website linked to the group.

"Israelis and Kenyan forces have tried to enter Westgate mall by force, but they could not. The mujahideen (fighters) will kill the hostages if the enemies use force," said Al-Shabaab's spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage.

Security forces, receiving advice from Western and Israeli experts said they had secured the bulk of the complex by Sunday, freeing many people who had hidden in terror.

But it remains unclear how many are still being held hostage.

Colonel Cyrus Oguna, a Kenyan military spokesman said most of those freed had not been held by the gunmen, but had found places of refuge.

He said "a very small number" were still captive, but gave no further details.

Meanwhile, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said those responsible will be punished.

"They shall not get away with their despicable and beastly acts. Like the cowardly perpetrators now cornered in the building. We will punish the masterminds swiftly and indeed very painfully. I call on Kenyans to stand courageous and united."

Asked at a news conference about whether captives had been wired with explosives, Kenyatta declined to comment.

The President, who lost a nephew and his nephew's fiancé in the attacks, vowed to hold firm in the "war on terror" in Somalia and said cautiously that Kenyan forces could end the siege.

"I assure Kenyans that we have as good a chance to successfully neutralise the terrorists as we can hope for. We will punish the masterminds swiftly and painfully."

But a military spokesman for al-Shabaab said his group had nothing to fear.

"Where will Kenyatta get the power with which he threatens us?" said Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab.

Survivors' tales of Saturday's military-style, lunchtime assault by squads of attackers hurling grenades and spraying automatic fire, has left little doubt the hostage-takers are willing to kill.

Previous such raids around the world suggest they may also be ready to die with their captives.

The assault is the biggest single attack in Kenya since al-Qaeda's East Africa cell bombed the US Embassy in Nairobi in 1998, killing more than 200 people.

Kenya sent troops into Somalia in October 2011 to pursue militants whom it accused of kidnapping tourists and attacking its security forces.

Al-Shabaab's last big attack outside Somalia was a twin assault in Uganda which killed 77 people who were gathered to watch the 2010 World Cup final.

UNCLEAR IF MORE SOUTH AFRICANS AFFECTED

The Department of International Relations and Cooperation says it's receiving regular updates from its mission in Kenya on South Africans caught up in the violence.

The department says six citizens have already been rescued.

The department's Clayson Monyela says the nationalities of the remaining hostages remain unclear.

"There are still people trapped inside the mall. We don't really know who they are or what nationalities they are, but what we know for sure is that there were two other South Africans who were trapped and have since been released."

South African High Commissioner to Kenya, Ratubatsi Moloi, says at this stage, he also can't confirm whether any other South Africans have been affected by the attack.

"There are still people trapped in the mall. We can't tell whether there are any South Africans still inside and are sending our people to the mortuaries and hospitals to try and identify if there are any South Africans there."

Meanwhile, Thomas's family say they're still waiting for more details about his death.

Close friend David Meldrum says they know very little about what happened.

"I was with his wife Colleen at the time and she took a phone call from James's colleague in Nairobi who had just identified him at a morgue. Beyond that, we know nothing other than that he died from a gunshot wound."

SUPPORT FOR KENYA

Messages of support and condolences have been pouring in from around the world for Kenya.

US President Barack Obama has offered Washington's help to bring the perpetrators to justice.

There are also calls on social media for unity in the wake of the attacks.

President Jacob Zuma has expressed his shock and dismay about Saturday's attack and has sent his deepest condolences to the family of the South African man who was killed.

British Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed that at least three Brits were already among the dead.

"We should prepare ourselves for further bad news."

Officials in Israel, whose citizens own several stores in the mall and have been targeted by Islamists in Kenya before, said Israeli experts were also advising Kenyan forces.

Foreigners including two French women and diplomats from Canada and Ghana were killed.The Ghanaian, Kofi Awoonor, was also a renowned poet.

Other foreign victims were from China and Netherlands.