Yesterday, Peter landed in Nairobi to attend the Africa Hotel Investment Forum scheduled to start tomorrow. Hours later, armed gunmen attacked the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall, a popular mall for locals and Westerners alike with more than 80 stores, including large grocery stores and banks. At last count, there are over 50 dead, and 150 wounded. Peter sent in this blog on what is happening on the ground and how Kenya will be feeling the impact of this attack for a long time to come.
Update 9/24 6am: The siege continues at the mall. Death count numbers are still being adjusted. The mall stays surrounded by Kenyan troops. No one knows how many hostages are still inside or how many terrorists are still in there with them. The problem, of course, is that there are no accurate figures to work with. There are still 62 people — according to some reports — still unaccounted for…and who may still be in the building, either dead or alive. With each passing hour it becomes more likely that there will be a violent ending to this tragic story for those still alive in that mall. based on the terrorists actions, no one may walk out of there alive, so it may become a matter of not if, but simply when.
Update 9/23 4pm: After massive explosions and automatic weapons fire the Westgate Mall in a fully involved fire
Update 9/23 1pm: The situation continues to be fluid this morning…gunfire can be heard coming from the mall, as the assault team has located most if not all of the terrorists. It is unknown how many hostages they still have with them. Many of the hostages who were rescued late last night and earlier this morning were not being physically held by the terrorists but were inside the mall, hiding. This is indeed an atypical hostage situation because the terrorists insisted there was nothing to negotiate. The authorities felt that the longer they waited the higher the likelihood the hostages would simply be killed. So they were confronted with a tough and terrible decision. They could wait (which is standard operating procedure in most hostage cases) and try for a conversation/negotiation, but since that didn’t seem possible and would very likely lead to the deaths of all the hostages. Or, instead of trying to wait and save all the hostages, could go in and try and save as many as possible. and that’s what is apparently going on right now.
Update 2am: Authorities are now saying they have rescued most of the hostages. They are estimating there are only ten terrorists inside the mall. There is no news of any additional fatalities among either the police, hostages or terrorists. We may not know more until daybreak.
As of 7pm: It is dark now. The authorities have enlarged the perimeter around the mall, turned off electricity to the complex. Snipers are in place (with night vision equipped weapons). A joint Kenyan/Israel strike force is apparently preparing an assault, hoping that darkness will work in their favor.
A large explosion was reported, but no one can confirm the source or the exact location. Ambulances and doctors have been brought in closer to the perimeter, preparing to handle whatever happens.
Initially, the terrorists appeared to have the upper hand — as opposed to other hostage scenarios of the past. Usually authorities can effectively isolate the location, know where the terrorists/hostages are — and can then systematically begin to cut off water, power, air conditioning, supplies et al.
This is happening at a mall where ALL the stores were open — including a large grocery store — at the time of the shootings. This could mean that the terrorists can continue to resupply themselves. Another possible scenario — the terrorists can also raid many of the stores at the mall and change clothes into more civilian looking gear, making it that much harder for assault forces to distinguish between terrorist and hostage.
The Kenya government’s biggest immediate fear isn’t limited to ending the standoff at the Westgate mall. Their foreign minister is already in back door talks with the British Foreign Office and the U.S. State Department appealing to each foreign government directly NOT to issue a Kenyan travel advisory to their citizens.
The real concern among Kenyan government officials is the huge economic impact; the Kenya economy took a staggering hit when tourism nearly evaporated in 1998 following the terrorist acts in Nairobi. In fact, both the prime minister and the president referenced travel and tourism and those advisories in their speeches just a few minutes ago.
It’s almost inevitable that both the U.S. and the British governments will proceed to issue those travel advisories or warnings anyway. There are no direct figures yet, but some safari operators, airlines and hotels are already telling me there has been a huge spike in cancellations.
I’ll be updating this blog in real time with the latest news.
By Peter Greenberg for PeterGreenberg.com