Late yesterday, Kenya’s Disaster Operation Centre said “this will end tonight. Our forces will prevail”.
Word of the Kenyan assault came shortly after a large blast echoed from the mall, around the start of the operation.
Before the assault, two helicopters hovered over the mall, skimming the roof. Al-Shabab militants reacted angrily to the helicopters on Twitter and said the Kenyan military action was endangering hostages.
The death toll rose to 68 last night, after nine more bodies were brought out from the building, Kenya’s Red Cross said on its Twitter feed.
Associated Press journalists at the Westgate mall said the blast yesterday afternoon was by far the largest in the 30-hour siege. The explosion was followed by silence.
An estimated 10 to 15 militant attackers remained in the shopping mall last night holding an unknown number of captives, Kenyan officials said.
The Kenyan military had gone into the four-storey mall and there had been sporadic gun battles.
Kenyan troops were seen carrying in at least two rocket-propelled grenades.
Security officials were unable to say how many people were being held captive.
Kenya’s Red Cross said in a statement citing police that 49 people had been reported missing.
The Somalian 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.
Kenyan 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 Mr 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.
Earlier in the day, he said his nephew and his nephew’s fiancée were killed in the attack.
Former Kenyan prime minister Raila Odinga told reporters a number of people were being held hostage on the third floor and the basement area of the mall.
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,” Mr Lenku said, adding that more than 1,000 people escaped the attack.
“We have received a lot of messages from friendly countries, but for now it remains our operation,” Mr Lenku said.
More than 175 people were injured in the attack, Mr Lenku said, including many children.