NAIROBI, Kenya — Working near bodies crushed by rubble in a bullet-scarred, scorched mall, FBI agents began fingerprint, DNA and ballistic analyses Wednesday to help determine the identities and nationalities of victims and al-Shabab gunmen who attacked the shopping center, killing more than 60 people.
A gaping hole in the mall’s roof was caused by Kenyan soldiers who fired rocket-propelled grenades inside, knocking out a support column, a government official said. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the soldiers fired to distract a terrorist sniper so hostages could be evacuated.
Video of the roof collapse showed massive carnage. The collapse came Monday.
Al-Shabab, the Somali Islamic extremist group that carried out the attack, said on its Twitter feed Wednesday claimed that the Kenyan government assault team carried out “a demolition” of the building.
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The current death toll is 67 and is likely to climb because of uncounted bodies remaining in the wreckage of the Nairobi mall. An additional 175 people were injured, including more than 60 who remain hospitalized. At least 18 foreigners were among those killed. Flags throughout Kenya were flying at half-staff as part of three days of national mourning declared by government officials.
Al-Shabab said Wednesday that foreigners were a “legitimate target” and confirmed witness accounts that gunmen separated Muslims from other people and let the Muslims go free. The others were gunned down or taken hostage.
“The Mujahedeen carried out a meticulous vetting process at the mall and have taken every possible precaution to separate the Muslims from the Kuffar (disbelievers) before carrying out their attack,” the group said in an email.
Witnesses and other media reports have said that gunmen rounded up people, asked questions about Islam that a Muslim would know and told the Muslims to leave the mall. Nonetheless, some Muslims were among the victims.
Also among those killed when the militants stormed Westgate Mall on Saturday, were six Britons and citizens from France, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Peru, India, Ghana, South Africa and China.
In response to the attack, some malls around the world have been scrambling to add security guards, while for other malls, it’s been business as usual. The mixed reactions by malls isn’t unusual in an industry whose security efforts vary from unarmed guards in most shopping centers in the U.S. to metal detectors and bag searches in places such as Israel to main entrances that resemble airport-security lines in India.
Representatives of Seattle-area malls, including Bellevue Square, Alderwood mall and Northgate Mall, said Tuesday that they have security measures in place and work closely with law enforcement. But none revealed specific security measures.
Renee Witt, spokeswoman for Seattle police, said that after incidents of violence at malls, police are apt to be more vigilant, but she declined to give specifics.
Al-Shabab had threatened retaliation against Kenya for sending its troops into Somalia against al-Shabab, and many of those killed in the attack were Kenyans. The group’s leader, Ahmed Godane, said in a new audio statement Wednesday that more attacks would come, if Kenya doesn’t withdraw its troops.
Though Kenya’s foreign minister earlier said that “two or three” U.S. citizens may have been involved in the attack, a Western official said that after checking passport and refugee databases, there is no indication any Americans were involved. Several U.S. cities, notably Minneapolis, host large Somali-American communities.
Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku said forensic experts from the U.S., Israel, Britain, Germany and Canada are taking part in trying to reconstruct the scene at the mall.
Officials said the shopping center, which the terrorists held for four days, could hold dozens more bodies. The government has confirmed 72 total deaths: 61 civilians, six security forces and five attackers. The Red Cross says 71 people remain missing.
In a series of tweets from a Twitter account believed to be genuine, al-Shabab also claimed Wednesday that “having failed to defeat the mujahedeen inside the mall, the Kenyan govt disseminated chemical gases to end the siege.”
Kenyan government spokesman Manoah Esipisu said no chemical weapons were used — including tear gas — and that the collapse of floors in the mall was caused by a fire set by the terrorists.
Lenku, meanwhile, said there were no indications a woman took part in the attack, despite persistent speculation, and he said officials have not confirmed reports that the attackers had rented a shop inside the mall.
Afetsi Awoonor, the son of Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor, who was killed in the attack, told the BBC that the gunmen he saw were Caucasians wearing goggles and protective vests.
The elder Awoonor, 78, was a literary icon in his native Ghana, and was known worldwide for his innovative style that translated the rhythms of his Ewe language into English. He had been in Kenya with his son for the Storymoja Hay Festival, a literary event.
U.S. Ambassador Robert Godec said Wednesday that the U.S. is providing technical support and equipment to Kenyan security forces and medical responders. Godec said the U.S. is assisting the investigation to bring the attack’s organizers and perpetrators to justice.
Kenyan officials have said 11 suspects were arrested in the attack, including at least seven at the airport. They are being questioned, Esipisu, the government spokesman, said.
Seattle Times reporter Steve Miletich contributed to this report. Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.