Johannesburg: Al-Shabab, the armed Somali Islamic extremist group that attacked a shopping mall in Kenya, said Wednesday that foreigners were a "legitimate target" and confirmed witness accounts that gunmen tried to let Muslims go free while killing or taking the others captive.
In an email exchange Wednesday with The Associated Press, al-Shabab said, "The Mujahideen 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."
According to published accounts, witnesses have said the gunmen rounded up people, asked questions about Islam that a Muslim would know and told the Muslims to leave the mall.
At least 18 foreigners were killed, including six Britons, citizens from France, Canada, Trinidad, the Netherlands, Australia, Peru, India, Ghana, South Africa and China, when the militants entered the Westgate Mall on Saturday, slaughtering men, women and children with assault rifles and grenades and taking people hostage. The current death toll is 67 and is likely to climb with uncounted bodies remaining in the rubble of the Nairobi mall.
The terrorist group behind the takeover of a Nairobi mall claimed Wednesday that the Kenyan government assault team carried out "a demolition" of the building, burying 137 hostages in rubble. A government spokesman denied the claim and said Kenyan forces were clearing all rooms, firing as they moved and encountering no one.
In a series of tweets from a Twitter account believed to be genuine, al-Shabab also said that "having failed to defeat the mujahideen inside the mall, the Kenyan govt disseminated chemical gases to end the siege."
Kenyan government spokesman Manoah Esipisu told The Associated Press that 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 and that the official civilian death toll remains 61.
"Al-Shabab is known for wild allegations and there is absolutely no truth to what they're saying," he said. But officials said the death count will likely rise. Estimates varied between only a few bodies to dozens of bodies possibly still inside the mall.
Photos and video of the damage showed the mall's top level parking lot collapsed in the middle of the building. That brought the second level down onto the ground floor on top of at least eight civilians and one or more attackers, said Esipisu.
Al-Shabab had threatened retaliation against Kenya for sending its troops into Somalia against al-Shabab, and many of those killed in an attack that horrified the world were Kenyans. Asked if al-Shabab had intended to kill foreigners, the group said "our target was to attack the Kenyan government on its soil and any part of the Kenyan territory is a legitimate target ... and Kenya should be held responsible for the loss of life, whether foreigners or local"
Despite their efforts to spare Muslims, some of those killed were members of the faith. One man, Louis Bawa, whose wife Zahira and daughter Jennah were killed, told a London newspaper that al-Shabab was "using religion as an excuse to kill people."
"Zahira and Jennah were Muslims, but these animals just shot them the same as all of the others," Bawa told The Telegraph.
Al-Shabab controlled much of Somalia, which borders Kenya to the east, for several years, including most of the capital Mogadishu. African Union forces pushed the al-Qaida-affiliated group out of Mogadishu in 2011 and Kenya sent in troops that year, further squeezing the group into smaller territory in Somalia's south.
Al-Shabab has carried out suicide bombings in Somalia against military and government targets but has also set off bombs at a college graduation ceremony in Mogadishu, at restaurants and other locations, killing Muslim civilians.
Asked if the separation of Muslims from non-Muslims at the outset of the mall attack represented a change in tactics, the group insisted in an email that it "has never deliberately targeted Muslims."
"Our targets have always been disbelievers, invaders and the apostate governments officials/troops who are allied with them," it said.
Al-Shabab, whose name means "The Youth" in Arabic, has said the mall attack was in retribution for Kenyan forces' push into Somalia.