Kenyan security forces have rightfully earned plaudits for a gallant performance tackling the bloody siege at Westgate Shopping Mall.
From the moment the Al-Shabbab terrorists struck just before lunchtime on Saturday and killed dozens before taking hostages inside the upmarket mall, policemen on patrol and from nearby police stations who were first on the scene bravely entered the complex and led hundreds of terrified victims to safety.
The policemen from various units were lightly armed with handguns, with only a few bearing assault rifles. T
hey had no uniform or protective gear such as helmets, visors and bullet-proof vests. They came to provide heroic early pictures as they shepherded shoppers to safety or made their way down corridors and up staircases within the building to make for iconic images that could have come straight from some Hollywood action movie.
The policemen first on the scene thought they were responding to an ordinary robbery. It took a while for the full gravity of the situation to sink in and the heavy-hitters from the special squads of the Kenya Police, General Service Unit and Anti-Terrorism squads to be brought in, followed by special forces from the Kenya Army.
While Kenyans may have been enthralled by the firepower assembled, there must have been reason to worry when the siege dragged on even as the authorities issued assurances that they were in control of the mall except for a few pockets where the terrorists were holding hostages.
That a bunch of dozen or so terrorists could hold at bay all that the Kenya Defense Forces and the Kenya Police plus the military advisors or special forces (it was never clear which) from Israel, the United States and Britain could throw at them should have sent the message that the picture was not as rosy as painted.
It certainly cannot be easy tackling terrorists who are shielding behind innocent men, women and children; ready to die for their cause and probably laying booby traps and explosives that could blow the whole edifice sky high.
But it seemed that the reassuring messages from the press briefings and the various tweeter handles run by the security agencies set out to provide positive spin on a dicey situation.
By Tuesday afternoon, for instance, there were still reports of gunfire from the Westgate Mall despite ‘confirmation’ the previous night that security forces had vanquished the terrorists, freed all the remaining hostages and were in full control of the complex.
Well after on Tuesday, a message from the Kenya Police twitter account announced that the operation was still in the ‘last stages’, a significant retreat from the previous night’s assurances that Westgate had been liberated.
The Kenya Defense Force and the other twitter handles were also all on messages about ‘mopping up’ operations, but remained conspicuously silent on whether all the hostages had been rescued and whether there were still gunmen providing resistance.
That seemed a familiar follow up from Sunday night when the security forces indicated that they were in the ‘final push’ to conclude the operation, only for the siege to last throughout the night and onto the whole of Monday.
Conflicting and contradictory information from the various twitter handles set up by different agencies involved in the operation did not help matters.