A large explosion rocked the Kenyan mall where Islamic extremists are holding hostages a day after attacking the upscale shopping centre and killing 59 people.
Associated Press journalists at the Westgate mall said the explosion on Sunday afternoon was by far the largest in the 30-hour siege. There big blast was followed by silence.
An estimated 10 to 15 militant attackers are in the shopping mall holding an unknown number of captives, said Kenyan officials. The Kenyan military has gone into the four-story mall and there have been sporadic gun battles. Kenyan troops were seen carrying in at least two rocket propelled grenades.
Earlier on Sunday Kenyan army helicopters hovered over the mall.
There are fears of a protracted standoff in which the terrorists use the captives as pawns.
Kenyan security officials didn't – or couldn't – say how many people were being held captive by the terrorists. Kenya's Red Cross said in a statement citing police that 49 people had been reported missing. Officials did not make an explicit link but that number could form the basis of the number of people held captive.
'We'll not negotiate'
Somalia's al-Qaeda-linked rebel group, al-Shabab, claimed responsibility for the attack in which they used grenades and assault rifles and specifically targeted non-Muslims. The attackers included some women. The Islamic extremist rebels said the attack was retribution for Kenyan forces' 2011 push into neighbouring Somalia.
Al-Shabab said on its new Twitter feed – after its previous one was shut down on Saturday – that Kenyan officials were asking the hostage-takers to negotiate and offering incentives.
"We'll not negotiate with the Kenyan govt as long as its forces are invading our country, so reap the bitter fruits of your harvest," al-Shabab said in a tweet.
Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta reiterated his government's determination to continue fighting al-Shabab.
"We went as a nation into Somalia to help stabilise the country and most importantly to fight terror that had been unleashed on Kenya and the world," said Kenyatta."We shall not relent on the war on terror."
He said although this violent attack had succeeded, the Kenyan security forces had "neutralised" many others.
'Save as many lives'
Earlier in the day Kenyatta said he his nephew and his nephew's fiance were killed in the attack.
Former Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga told reporters at the mall that a number of people were being held hostage on the third floor and the basement area of the mall, which includes stores for Nike, Adidas and Bose stores.
Kenyan security officials sought to reassure the families of hostages inside but implied that hostages could be killed. The security operation is "delicate" because Kenyan forces hoped to ensure the hostages are evacuated safely, said Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Lenku.
"The priority is to save as many lives as possible," Lenku said, adding that more than 1 000 people escaped the attack inside the mall on Saturday.
"We have received a lot of messages from friendly countries, but for now it remains our operation," Lenku said.
More than 175 people were injured in the attack, Lenku said, including many children. Kenyan forces were in control of the mall's security cameras, he said.
Britain's prime minister, in confirming the deaths of three British nationals, told the country to "prepare ourselves for further bad news".
"It's an extremely difficult situation but we're doing everything we can to help the Kenyans in their hours of need," David Cameron said.
"Violent extremists continue to occupy Westgate mall. Security services are there in full force," said the United States embassy in an emergency text message issued on Sunday morning advising Americans to stay indoors and close to home.
Westgate mall is at least partially owned by Israelis, and reports circulated that Israeli commandos were on the ground to assist in the response. Four restaurants inside the mall are Israeli-run or owned.
In Israel, a senior defence official said there were no Israeli forces participating in an assault, but the official said it was possible that Israeli advisers were providing assistance. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing a classified military issue, would not elaborate.
Israel has close ties to Kenya going back many years. And in recent years, Israel has identified East Africa as an area of strategic interest and stepped up ties with Kenya and other neighbouring countries, due to shared threats posed by al-Qaeda and other extremist elements. In 2002, militants bombed an Israeli-owned luxury hotel near Mombasa, killing 13 people, and tried to shoot down an Israeli airliner at the same time.
Kenyans and foreigners were among those confirmed dead, including British, French, Canadians, Indians, a Ghanaian, a South African and a Chinese woman.
Kofi Awoonor, a Ghanaian poet, professor and former ambassador to Brazil, Cuba and the United Nations, died after being injured in the attack, Ghana's presidential office confirmed. Ghana's ministry of information said Awoonor's son was injured and is responding to treatment.
Kenya's presidential office said that one of the attackers was arrested on Saturday and died after suffering from bullet wounds.
Britain's Foreign Office said that Foreign Secretary William Hague has chaired a meeting of Britain's crisis committee and sent a rapid deployment team from London to Nairobi to provide extra consular support.
The United Nations Security Council condemned the attacks and "expressed their solidarity with the people and Government of Kenya" in a statement.
There was some good news on Sunday, as Kenyan media reported that several people in hiding in the mall escaped to safety, suggesting that not everyone who was inside overnight was being held by al-Shabab.
Cecile Ndwiga said she had been hiding under a car in the basement parking garage.
"I called my husband to ask the soldiers to come and rescue me. Because I couldn't just walk out anyhow. The shootout was all over here – left, right – just gun shots," she said.
Security forces had pushed curious crowds far back from the mall. Hundreds of residents gathered on a high ridge above the mall to watch for any activity. Police lobbed multiple rounds of tear gas throughout the day at hundreds of curious Kenyans who gathered near the mall. – Sapa-AP