Smash 'n' grab: Big looting during Kenya mall siege

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NAIROBI, Kenya — Jewelry cases smashed and looted. Mobile phones ripped from displays. Cash registers emptied. Alcohol stocks plundered.

For the second straight Kenyan tragedy, poorly paid security forces that moved in to control the chaos are being accused of robbing the premises. First the troops were accused of looting during a huge fire in August at Nairobi’s international airport.

Now shop owners at Westgate Mall are returning to their stores following a devastating terrorist attack, in which at least 67 were killed, to find items ransacked and valuables stolen.

One witness told The Associated Press that he even saw a Kenyan soldier take cigarettes out of a dead man’s pocket.

Shop owners and managers spent Monday carting merchandise and other valuables out of their shops and restaurants to prevent anything more from being taken.

No one can say for sure, but Kenya’s security forces are strongly suspected.

Soon after the attack began on Sept. 21, Kenyan officials put a security cordon around the mall, allowing only security forces and a few government personnel to pass through.

Alcohol stocks from the restaurants have been depleted. One business owner at the mall said money and mobile phones were taken from bags and purses left behind in the mayhem. The owner insisted on anonymity to avoid retribution from Kenya’s government.

Employees of a book shop on the mall’s second floor returned to the corner shop to find cash registers yanked open and the cash gone. The store’s laptops were also stolen. All the shop’s books remained in place, said owner Paku Tsavani.

Perhaps reluctant to blame Kenyan security forces, Tsavani said he doesn’t know who took his goods.

“Obviously the terrorists wouldn’t steal those things, so we just don’t know,” Tsavani said.

Sandeep Vidyarthi went into the mall on Sunday to help a relative retrieve equipment from his dental practice. Inside he said he passed shop after shop that had been looted, including the Rado shop that sells high-end Swiss watches.

As he was exiting the mall, Vidyarthi passed a jewelry shop near the front entrance. The owner, Vidyarthi said, was presenting security officials with a long list of missing precious stones and high-end necklaces now gone.

“The jeweler had written down this very long list,” he said.

It is ironic, the management team of one Westgate business told AP, that store owners now must make reports of stolen goods and present them to security forces, when most here suspect the security forces of having done the thieving.

Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku confirmed the reports of theft in a news conference Sunday. The majority of the responders to the terrorist attack came from Kenya’s military. A military spokesman didn’t answer repeated calls for comment.

“Those responsible for looting will be prosecuted,” Lenku said.

The mall attack also saw good Samaritans. Paresh Shah, a volunteer who helped evacuate the injured and the dead during the first day of the attack, said he carried out the body of Aleem Jamal.

Shah frowned at the memory and said he saw a Kenyan soldier take Jamal’s cigarettes while in the ambulance.

“I could never do that, take a dead man’s cigarettes,” Shah said.

Jamal’s family retrieved the body at the morgue, where his wife, Taz Jamal, said her husband’s wallet was missing.

A team of terrorists entered Westgate Mall shortly after noon on a busy Saturday, firing guns and throwing grenades. The attackers — the Somali extremist group al-Shabab claimed responsibility — held off Kenya’s military and controlled at least parts of the mall for four days. The mall now has a gaping three-story hole in it from the siege.

More than three dozen people remain unaccounted for almost a week after the end of the four-day attack that killed at least 61 civilians and six security forces, the head of the Kenyan Red Cross said Monday. The government contends there are no remaining missing people.

“The only way to verify this is when the government declares the Westgate Mall 100 percent cleared, then we can resolve it,” Red Cross head Abbas Gullet said.

A morgue worker told AP on Monday that six body parts have been found in the rubble. The worker, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about information not yet released, said it wasn’t clear if the parts came from one or multiple bodies.

Five terrorists are believed to be under the building’s rubble but no dead hostages, said Interior Minister Lenku on Sunday. Government officials have said 10 to 15 terrorists attacked the mall. Lenku said some attackers might have escaped.

“We do not rule out the possibility that when we were evacuating people in the first stages of the operation it is possible some could have slipped out,” he said.

FBI agents, along with investigators from Britain, Canada and Germany, are participating in the investigation into the attack and are aiding Kenyan forensic experts. Results are not expected until later this week at the earliest.

Kenyan authorities have detained a total of 12 people in connection with the attack under the country’s anti-terrorism laws, including one on Sunday. Three have been set free, including a British man who was reportedly arrested last week as he tried to board a flight from Nairobi to Turkey with a bruised face and while acting suspiciously, the British Foreign Office confirmed Monday.

Ndung’u Githinji, chairman of parliament’s foreign relations committee, said officials will “rethink” Kenya’s hospitality in supporting refugee camps, a reference to Dadaab, a refugee camp near Somalia filled with more than 400,000 Somalis. Security officials say some elements in the camp support and facilitate terror attacks.