Africa

Hell Mall: Kenyan president’s challenge

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Media captionPresident Uhuru Kenyatta: "We have shamed and defeated our attackers"

It was the most awaited speech by Kenyans and countries around the world whose nationals were caught up in the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate mall.

In his televised message on Tuesday night, President Uhuru Kenyatta declared: "The operation is now over."

That should have triggered a sigh of relief for a country that was left badly shaken and wounded by the mid-morning Saturday attack on an up-market shopping complex patronised by wealthy Kenyans, diplomats and tourists.

Families across Kenya and other parts of the world - in countries such as Australia, Canada, China, France, Ghana, India, the Netherlands, Peru, South Africa, South Korea, the UK and the US - had waited for more than three days to know when the siege would end and the fate of their loved ones, trapped in the hell mall.

No-one could dare underestimate the complexity of the operation, given that the attack was conducted by a gang of heavily armed militants not interested in negotiations but simply out to claim as many lives as possible.

More questions than answers

Beyond the sigh of relief, the presidential announcement delivered more questions than answers.

Image caption Kenya is holding three days of national mourning

To date it is not clear how many people were held hostage in the mall, the total number of those who died and those who remain unaccounted for.

But hopes of finding anyone alive would have been crashed when the president revealed that some floors had collapsed.

"Towards the tail end of the operation, three floors of the Westgate Mall collapsed and there are several bodies still trapped in the rubble, including the terrorists," the president said.

But there is no explanation yet about what caused the floors to collapse. Were they hit by explosives? And by whom - the attackers or the Kenya Defence Force (KDF)?

On Monday, the third day of the siege, there was heavy gunfire, explosions and a fire that sent a thick cloud of smoke billowing for more than five hours over the skies of the traumatised city.

According Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku, the attackers had deliberately set on fire some mattresses from the supermarket to distract security operations.

During the Monday operation, which was meant to signal an end to the siege, the minister said that nearly all hostages had been rescued.

But listening to the president as he declared the operation over, it seemed clear that several hostages were still trapped in the building.

Were there women?

How about hostage-takers - the heavily armed, ready-to-die attackers? Initially the government said there were up to 15 of them in the mall. The president confirmed five of them had been killed during the operation.

There were also reports that several suspects were arrested in different parts of the country as they were attempting to escape.

Image caption There have been speculation that there were women among the attackers

While the Chief of the Defence Forces, Gen Julius Karangi, told the media that the nationalities of the attackers are known, confusion still dogged the government.

A day after the attack, President Kenyatta told the press that there were women among the militants.

He was contradicted the following day by Mr Lenku, who said there were no women. He said the attackers were all men but some had disguised themselves as women.

Hardly a day had passed before the country's Foreign Minister, Amina Mohammed, revisited the issue of a British woman possibly involved in the attack.

If Mr Karangi says the nationalities of the attackers are known, then why the confusion?

The ICC dilemma

The Westgate attack also exposed the difficulties Kenya's leadership is facing with the on-going International Criminal Court (ICC) cases at The Hague.

Image caption William Ruto has denied organising violence after the December 2007 elections

Deputy President William Ruto and President Kenyatta are accused of orchestrating violence after elections in 2007, and are being tried separately at The Hague.

Mr Ruto, whose case has already begun, could not simply jump onto the next flight to Kenya when he heard the news.

He had to apply for an adjournment and wait for the court's decision before dashing home to commiserate with fellow Kenyans and also support the president in handling what must be the toughest test of their five-month-old government.

Mr Ruto has been allowed a week before he has to return to The Hague to resume his trial.

What does this mean for President Kenyatta? Already he was reported to have cancelled his trip to the UN General Assembly in New York - the first time Kenya's top leadership has failed to attend the meeting.

Mr Kenyatta argued that it would have been impossible for both he and his deputy to be out of the country at the same time.

But come November, President Kenyatta will be expected to travel to The Hague for his trial. The ICC has rejected his request for the trial to be postponed to January.

Supposing the Westgate attack had happened when the country's commander-in-chief was at The Hague, how soon would the ICC allow him to travel? For how long would he be allowed to stay away?

If these issues are crossing the president's mind in the light of the Westgate terror attack, then the ICC matter is not just a personal challenge as he has previously described it. It is perhaps also a big national challenge.