By Bernard Momanyi –
As the battle with al-Shabab militants at a Nairobi shopping mall entered its third day, judges at the International Criminal Court allowed Kenya’s deputy president, William Ruto, to fly home to deal with the crisis.
So far, 69 people are known to have been killed and more than 170 others injured since gunmen from the Somali Islamist group al-Shabab stormed the up-market Westgate shopping mall on Saturday, September 21.
Prosecutors in The Hague said they “had no difficulty” with granting Ruto a short absence, but opposed a longer one sought by his lawyer, Karim Khan.
“For the moment the excusal is permitted for one week only, subject to any further requests that defence counsel may make if need be to extend it,” trial Judge Chile Eboe-Osuji said in an oral ruling issued during a special court session.
Explosions and heavy gunfire could be heard coming from the shopping centre early on Monday after teams of heavily armed security units stormed the building in an effort to save hostages who remained trapped inside.
Thick black smoke has been seen coming from the four-storey complex. Kenyan soldiers and armoured vehicles have surrounded the building.
There are thought to be between ten and 15 gunmen in the mall but the number of hostages is not known.
The mall is one of the largest in Nairobi and is frequented by wealthy Kenyans and members of the expat community.
A number of foreigners are among the dead, including a Canadian diplomat, as well as three British and two French nationals.
Al-Shabab have claimed responsibility for the attack, which is thought to be in retaliation for Kenyan military operations against the al-Qaeda–linked militants.
The Kenyan army has been fighting al-Shabab across its northern border inside Somalia since October 2011.
The capital Nairobi and Kenya’s second city Mombasa have been hit by a number of much smaller terrorist attacks in the last two years.
Local media report that more than 1,000 people were inside the mall when the attack began on September 21 at around noon.
According to witnesses, gunmen entered the building firing shots and throwing grenades.
The attackers are said to have been speaking foreign languages identified by some witnesses as Somali or Arabic.
“They were dressed in those headscarves worn by al-Shabab, and they were saying they are out to kill because Kenyan soldiers are fighting them inside Somalia,” a survivor of the attack, who identified herself only as Lena, told IWPR.
Lena told IWPR how she had taken cover under a table and watched as a man was shot by the gunman after he failed to answer a question about the Prophet Muhammad.
“He lay still and bleeding next to me for hours until the evening when we were taken out by rescuers and police,” she told IWPR.
Another survivor, Jeremy Koech, who was shot by the attackers, pretended to be dead and managed to escape from the mall.
“They were merciless, I saw them execute several people as I lay still on the ground,” he said. “We managed to crawl to the entrance when they went upstairs, and that is why we survived. I did not know however, that I had been injured by a gunshot until when I was outside and helped to hospital.”
Koech said the attackers “spoke clearly, saying you deserve to die, as they shot at people with machine guns”.
Noela Shah’s brother was shot dead by the gunmen but she managed to escape.
After leaving the mall, the two of them had gone back inside to check the films playing at the cinema.
“Why did it have to happen to us?” she said. “Although I am lucky to be alive, I don’t know what to do to get over this. My brother could have survived were it not that we went back to the mall to check if some movie was screening.”
Relatives of Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, have also been killed in the attack. His nephew Mbugua Mwangi and the latter’s fiancée Rosemary Wahito are among the dead.
“I feel the pain of every life we have lost, and share your grief at our nation’s loss,” Kenyatta said in a statement on September 22. “Many of us have lost loved ones. Let us mourn them all as one nation, and keep them always in remembrance and prayer.”
The president vowed that his government would not withdraw its troops from Somalia.
“We shall not relent on the war on terror, we will continue that fight and we urge all people of good will to join us,” he said. “So if you thought this will intimidate us, it will not.”
Judges in The Hague adjourned proceedings on Monday until Ruto returns to The Hague, or until the court’s appeals judges rule on an earlier request from his lawyers that he be allowed to miss large parts of the proceedings.
While prosecutors did not oppose Ruto returning to Nairobi this week, they have challenged an earlier decision by trial judges to allow him to be absent when witnesses give evidence to the court.
Ruto is facing trial on charges related to organising the violence that engulfed Kenya following the disputed outcome of a presidential election in December 2007.
More than 1,100 people were killed and 650,000 others uprooted from their homes in months of political and ethnic violence.
Ruto is being tried with a second defendant, former journalist Joshua Arap Sang, on three counts of crimes against humanity covering murder, persecution and forcible population transfer.
In a separate case, President Kenyatta is due to stand trial on similar charges.
As the horror unfolded at the Westgate shopping centre over the weekend, world leaders were united in sending condolence messages to Kenya.
United States president Barack Obama, British prime minister David Cameron and United Nation Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon are among those who have condemned the attack.
Obama said America was willing and prepared to offer any support to help bring justice for the perpetrators.
“President Obama called President Kenyatta of Kenya this morning to express condolences to the government and people of Kenya,” a statement from the US embassy in Nairobi said. “President Obama reiterated US support for Kenya’s efforts to bring the perpetrators of the attack to justice.”
Cameron said that the UK “will do everything to help” Kenya.
Bernard Momanyi is a reporter for ReportingKenya.net and News Editor at Capital FM in Nairobi.
This article was produced as part of a media development programme by IWPR and Wayamo Communication Foundation in partnership with Capital FM.