NAIROBI - Kenyan troops launched an assault Sunday night to end a terrifying siege by Somali militants holding hostages inside a shopping mall, with police warning the death toll of 68 people could rise "much higher".
Shortly after night fell with the siege well into its second day, teams backed by Israeli agents moved in to end the bloodbath at the upmarket Westgate complex.
"Godspeed to our guys in the Westgate building," Kenya's National Disaster Operation Centre said in a message on its Twitter site. "Major engagement ongoing."
The disaster centre, which said the assault "will end tonight" reported "sporadic gunfire" as the troops battled the remaining attackers, while an AFP reporter outside the mall heard a loud explosion as helicopters flew overhead.
"The criminals are now all located in one place within the building... We have as good a chance to successfully neutralise the terrorists as we can hope for," Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a speech to the nation.
Most of the hostages have now been rescued and most of the complex is secure, the Kenya army announced later in the day.
It said it was seeking to bring a "speedy conclusion" to the siege.
"Our concern is to rescue all hostages ALIVE and that is why the operation is delicate," the Kenya Defence Forces said in a situation update on Twitter.
Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta flanked by veteran politicians Raila Odinga and Mudavadi before he made a statement to the nation at the State House in Nairobi . PHOTO BY AFP
A Kenyan security source also confirmed that Israelis "are rescuing the hostages and the injured". The Israeli foreign ministry refused to confirm or deny its agents were involved.
Terrified witnesses recounted scenes of horror as the masked gunmen tossed grenades and sprayed automatic gunfire in the packed centre in a brazen attack around midday on Saturday, sending panicked shoppers fleeing for their lives.
Officials have estimated some 200 people have been wounded in the more than 30-hour-siege.
But police sources who had entered the building on Sunday evening said they feared that death toll "could be much, much higher... judging from the bodies sighted inside," reporting that the attackers continued to fight back.
Nine bodies were taken out the centre shortly after troops went in, updating an earlier toll of 59.
Somalia's Al Qaeda-inspired Shebab rebels said the carnage at the partly Israeli-owned complex was in retaliation for Kenya's military intervention in Somalia, where African Union troops are battling the Islamists.
"They shall not get away with their despicable and beastly acts," Kenyatta said in an emotional speech. "We will punish the masterminds swiftly, and indeed very painfully."
More than 1,000 people have been rescued, but between 10 to 15 attackers -- reportedly both men and women -- are holding out in the multi-storey complex "as well as many unarmed, badly shaken, innocent civilians", Kenyatta said.
Kenyatta said a nephew and his fiancee were among those killed during the sometimes ferocious gun battles.
The dead also included three Britons, two French women, two Canadians including a diplomat, a Chinese women, two Indians, a South Korean, a South African and a Dutch woman, according to their governments.
Also killed was Ghanaian poet and former UN envoy Kofi Awoonor, 78, while his son was injured.
The attack, the worst in Nairobi since an Al-Qaeda bombing at the US embassy killed more than 200 people in 1998, was condemned by world powers.
Injured people receive assistance from bypassers after masked gunmen stormed an upmarket mall. AFP
US President Barack Obama called Kenyatta offering support "to bring the perpetrators of the attack to justice", while UN chief Ban Ki-moon said the violence was "totally reprehensible".
Kenya's Vice President William Ruto has asked the International Criminal Court to delay his trial for crimes against humanity over deadly 2007-08 post-election violence because of the mall standoff, his lawyer said.
List of foreign nationals killed in Kenya mall siege - Facts
With the siege still ongoing, here's a list of countries who have confirmed the deaths of their nationals:
-- BRITAIN: Prime Minister David Cameron says three Britons are confirmed dead in the "despicable" attack and warns that the toll could rise further.
-- CANADA: Prime Minister Stephen Harper says two Canadians are among the dead at Westgate mall, including diplomat Annemarie Desloges, who was a liaison officer with the Canada Border Services Agency at Canada's High Commission to Kenya.
-- CHINA: A 38-year-old Chinese woman was killed and her teenage son was injured in the attack, China's state-run news agency Xinhua reports, saying the Chinese embassy in Kenya has confirmed the death.
-- FRANCE: A mother and daughter were "executed in the parking lot" of the shopping centre, says France's minister in charge of nationals living abroad.
-- GHANA: President John Dramani Mahama expresses "shock" at the death of poet and statesman Kofi Awoonor. The 78-year-old was most noted for his poetry inspired by the oral tradition of the Ewe people, to which he belonged. He was also Ghana's representative to the United Nations from 1990 to 1994.
-- INDIA: Pharmaceutical company employee Sridhar Natarajan, 40, and an eight-year-old boy are among the dead, according to India's foreign ministry.
-- NETHERLANDS: The foreign ministry says a 33-year-old Dutch woman lost her life in the attack. The victim was living in Tanzania and was married to an Australian, who was also killed in the siege, according to Dutch media reports.
-- PERU: Peruvian doctor Juan Jesus Ortiz, 63-year-old former senior official at the UN children's agency UNICEF, was hit by a burst of gunfire and died at the scene, relatives and officials said. The victim's 13-year-old daughter was shot in the leg and hand but is expected to survive.
-- SOUTH AFRICA: The South African government says one national is among the dead.
-- SOUTH KOREA: The foreign ministry says Kang Moon-hee, 38, was killed in the attack while her British husband was injured. The couple had only recently moved to Nairobi from Dubai.
In addition to the fatalities, many countries have reported injured nationals, including at least five Americans, according to the US State Department.
Kenyan officials have estimated some 200 people have been wounded in the more than 30-hour-siege.