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Revealed: How the dramatic rescue operation at Westgate Mall was executed

A woman and her two children lie on the ground at the Westgate Mall, on September 21, 2013 before they were rescued by the police. Photo By Joseph Mathenge
As Kenyans commemorate the terrorism attack at the Westgate Mall in Westlands, Nairobi today, a father and his son reveal how a distress call from a friend led them to an encounter with the terrorists.
The September 21, 2013, terror attack that the former Osama bin Laden led Al Qaeda linked Al Shabaab terror group of Somalia owned responsibility claimed 60 lives and maimed scores others.
Photo-journalist Joseph Mathenge and his son Geoff Kihato, a computer science student at St Paul University were at Corner House downtown Nairobi preparing to go for a wedding in Kabete, Kiambu County when the distress call came.
The time was around 12pm and the caller was a woman Mathenge says she prefers to remain anonymous even after her near miraculous rescue from the Westgate Mall that was held hostage by terrorists for nearly four days.
“Westgate has been taken hostage by what looks like terrorists and we are now hiding inside Mr Price shop. Please help us get out here,” the lady screamed hysterically over the phone, Mathenge recalls.
Some of the people who were rescued from Westgate Mall. Photo By Joseph Mathenge.
Confused and without an immediate answer, Mathenge decided to call a police officer he knew, who confirmed the incident but said they were treating it as a robbery incident from initial information they had received.
The police officer said they could help in the rescue of his friend and invited him to join them as they proceeded to Westgate Mall.
Mathenge and his son jumped into their car and drove to where the police officers had assembled and headed to Westlands.
“When we approached Westgate Mall we were greeted with gunshots and scores of people some with blood all over their bodies fleeing from the mall, others terribly injured,” Mathenge explains.
He says they accompanied the police as they entered the mall through the parking area and it was here they came face-to-face with the devastation caused by the terrorists.
“Scores of people lay dead, the injured writhed in pain, while those who had survived the terror attack lay among the dead silent and in shock,” Mathenge notes.
He says they later learnt from the survivors that the scene was initially hosting a cooking competition before the terrorists attacked.
GSU Recce commandoes guide people out of the Westgate Mall on September 21, 2013. Photo Joseph Mathenge.
“We came across a lady who had been shot but she was still breathing and she was lying next to an unexploded grenade with its pin off. I alerted one of the police officers who swiftly it picked up the grenade and restored the pin,” he explains.
Kihato adds all this time gunshots continued to rent the air in what they suspected to be the terrorists continued search for more people to harm.
The police officers later held a rescue planning session and how to confront the terrorists before they settled on a corridor that went from the mall’s third floor downstairs.
“We finally entered Planet Media, a movie theatre, on the second floor where scores of people were hiding from the blood-thirsty terrorists,” Kihato remembers.
Mathenge said this entire time snipers continued to shot at the advancing police squad and one police officer was shot in the arm and his gun and radio fell down.
“Quick reaction resulted in one of the police squad members quickly shooting the radio to stop the terrorists from eavesdropping in police communication,” he says.
He adds at this time they had noticed a woman with two children who lay flat on the ground and one could have mistaken them to be dead and one police officer was detailed to dress in civilian and go and rescue her.
GSU Recce commandoes search people  who are leaving the Westgate Mall during the terror attack on September 21, 2013.
“When the police officer reached her, she declined to respond to his pleas to follow him and he had to do a lot of convincing before she agreed to be rescued from the murderous scene with her two children,” the photo-journalist recalls.
Mathenge says after this, they embarked on the mission to rescue his friend and throughout the operation he had continued to encourage her to remain calm as the police rescue team was advancing towards her.
“She gave us directions on how we were going to reach Mr Price shop and when we reached there she gave me details on how to open the door. I opened the door and the police rescue squad entered and started rescuing all the people who were held-up there including my friend,” he said.
He explains that it was at this stage that the GSU Recce commandoes arrived and joined the operation.
“As the operation to rescue more people held-up in Mr Price shop continued, the officer commanding the GSU Recce commandoes was shot dead by a sniper as we watched,” he adds.
Mathenge says undeterred by the killing of their commander the operation to rescue more people from Mr Price continued until the people were cleared from the place.
He adds that it was now around 6.30pm and the Kenya Army Special Forces unit had arrived at the scene and the police and Recce commandoes were withdrawn from the scene.
“We also had no option but to leave because we were there courtesy of the police squad,” Mathenge says in summary.


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