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Sour food, shattered glass: Cleaning Kenya's mall

Wednesday - 10/2/2013, 4:06am  ET

A Kenyan takes photographs of the collapsed upper car park using his smartphone, at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta says Kenya will keep its troops in Somalia to help that country's beleaguered government battle the armed Islamic extremist group al-Shabab, which attacked the mall in Nairobi on Sept. 21 claiming at least 67 lives. (AP Photo/Jason Straziuso)

JASON STRAZIUSO
Associated Press

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) -- The sour odor of rotting food overwhelms the senses. Shattered glass crunches underfoot. And evidence of looting is ever-present, including in Westgate Mall's chandelier-filled casino.

Shop owners on Tuesday boarded up stores and removed merchandise even as Kenyan, U.S. and European investigators moved through the mall's rubble in search of answers to the four-day terrorist attack. A soldier inside said that two bodies had been found Tuesday, one likely a soldier. The other was burned so badly it was too difficult to say, he said.

Those cleaning up their shops wondered: Can the mall reopen? If so, when?

A mall official told The Associated Press that such questions won't be answered until the Kenyan government gives back control of the mall to its owners, a legal hold-up that may take months to resolve as the forensic investigation to find bodies and reconstruct events continues.

An Associated Press reporter on Tuesday spent about two hours inside Westgate, the site of a terrorist siege that killed at least 67 people. Kenya's government says five attackers are dead -- perhaps under the mall's rubble -- but officials acknowledge that some of the attackers may have changed clothes and walked out with fleeing, frightened shoppers.

The mall walk-through showed vast destruction where the mall caught fire and where it collapsed, but also SWAT-like tactics during the rush to rescue those inside when the grenades and bullets began flying. Many workers wore masks to cut the stench. Surgical gloves littered the floor, and foreign and Kenyan investigators, some wearing white moon suits, worked through the rubble.

AP also saw evidence of looting, thefts that many in the mall blame on Kenyan security forces: Cash registers yanked open and the money taken, jewels from display cases gone. Dozens of empty beer bottles -- apparently enjoyed by security forces -- prompted one restaurant employee to ask: "How do you expect them to kill someone if they are totally drunk?" and then wonder if maybe it was a post-siege celebration.

Carrying flashlights through the dark gaming area, Millionaires casino management walked carefully into the back room, where they found their main safe with several holes and gouges from bullets on it. The door remained closed, and those trying to open it would have been disappointed if they had succeeded. It was empty.

"Look, they tried to get into the vault," said a manager who squatted beside the green safe and pointing at the bullet scars. "The other day when we came in and took the money out, this wasn't here."

In the main gaming room, the door to the casino cage -- where winning gamblers cash in their chips -- had been kicked open. The money drawers were empty. The blackjack and roulette wheels were unscathed. A TV had been shot up.

Dr. Sunil Sachdevas, who has a dentist's office on the mall's top floor, said he is looking for a place to relocate. He said he bought terrorism insurance in 2010 but he has no policy for loss of income. Mall management asked him to reconsider.

"We told them that we would think about it, but we just can't. Our own patients have said they would not feel safe coming to us here, and the building is not going to be ready for months," Sachdevas said.

Al-Shabab says it attacked the mall to force Kenya to withdraw its troops from Somalia. The insurgent group once controlled much of the Horn of Africa nation and most of the capital, Mogadishu, but has since been pushed back by African Union forces to the country's south.

The group said it will carry out more terror attacks unless Kenya withdraws. Unbowed, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta vowed on Tuesday to keep Kenyan troops in Somalia until that country is stabilized and his deputy called members of al-Shabab "primitive and backward barbarians."

"If their desire is for Kenya to pull out from Somalia, my friends all they need to do is what they should have done 20 years ago, which is to put their house in order and Kenya will come back to Kenya," Kenyatta said at an interfaith prayer service.

Kenyatta said a commission of inquiry would be formed to study security lapses from the attack.

Just outside the mall's front entrance, bloody stretchers and three-burned out cars still stood.

In the pet store, fish floated in their tanks, dead. A mattress lay on the floor in one corner, apparently where a soldier had carried it out of the Nakumatt store to catch some rest.

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