JERUSALEM — Kenyan troops reportedly backed by Israeli agents launched an assault to end the siege by Somali militants at a Nairobi shopping mall.
A Kenyan security source confirmed that Israelis “are rescuing the hostages and the injured” at the upscale Westgate mall, the French news agency AFP reported. The Israeli Foreign Ministry refused to confirm or deny its agents were involved in the operation, which took place shortly after nightfall on Sunday.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta had said he received “numerous offers of assistance from friendly countries” but that for now it remained a Kenyan operation.
Citing an unidentified Israel security source, Reuters had reported earlier Sunday that Israeli advisers were helping with negotiation strategy but were not involved in “any imminent storming operation.”
The death toll in the attack was at 68, with police warning that it could rise “much higher,” AFP reported. Some 200 people have been injured in the attack, which began Saturday.
Militants from al Shabab, a Somalia-based terror group linked to al-Qaida, claimed responsibility for the attack.
The five-story shopping center features several Israeli-owned outlets, according to wire services. Among them is the ArtCaffe — the attack by eight gunmen took place near the coffee shop and bakery.
One Israeli was injured and three others escaped harm, according to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
A ministry spokeswoman said Israelis had not been specifically targeted.
“This time, the story is not about Israel,” she told The New York Times.
The spokeswoman told the Times that the ArtCaffe, which is located on the ground floor, is popular with foreigners.
Four Americans were injured in the bombing, according to the U.S. State Department.
Al Shabab said the attack was revenge for Kenya’s military operations in Somalia that began nearly two years ago, according to the Times.
Yariv Keidar, an employee of the Israeli-owned Amiran company based in Nairobi, told the Ynet news website that he and his Israeli co-worker hid his passport and work papers identifying him as Israeli trying to avoid kidnap or worse by the terrorists.
Islamist terrorists attacked an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya in 2002; three Israelis were among the 13 casualties. Four years earlier, an al-Qaida attack killed more than 200 people and destroyed the Nairobi-based American embassy.