JOHANNESBURG - Al-Shabab, the armed Somali Islamic extremist group that attacked a shopping mall in Kenya, said Wednesday that foreigners were a "legitimate target" and confirmed witness accounts that gunmen tried to let Muslims go free while killing or taking the others captive.
In an email exchange Wednesday with The Associated Press, al-Shabab said "The Mujahideen carried out a meticulous vetting process at the mall and have taken every possible precaution to separate the Muslims from the Kuffar (disbelievers) before carrying out their attack."
According to published accounts, witnesses have said the gunmen rounded up people, asked questions about Islam that a Muslim would know and told the Muslims to leave the mall.
At least 18 foreigners were killed, including six Britons, citizens from France, Canada, Trinidad, the Netherlands, Australia, Peru, India, Ghana, South Africa and China, when the militants entered the Westgate Mall on Saturday, slaughtering men, women and children with assault rifles and grenades and taking people hostage. The current death toll is 67 and is likely to climb with uncounted bodies remaining in the rubble of the Nairobi mall.
Al-Shabab had threatened retaliation against Kenya for sending its troops into Somalia against al-Shabab, and many of those killed in an attack that horrified the world were Kenyans. Asked if al-Shabab had intended to kill foreigners, the group said "our target was to attack the Kenyan govt on it's soil and any part of the Kenyan territory is a legitimate target ... and Kenya should be held responsible for the loss of life, whether foreigners or local"
Despite their efforts to spare Muslims, some of those killed were members of the faith. One man, Louis Bawa, whose wife Zahira and daughter Jennah were killed, told a London newspaper that al-Shabab was "using religion as an excuse to kill people."
"Zahira and Jennah were Muslims, but these animals just shot them the same as all of the others," Bawa told The Telegraph.
Asked if the separation of Muslims from non-Muslims at the outset of the mall attack represented a change in tactics, the group insisted in an email that it "has never deliberately targeted Muslims."
"Our targets have always been disbelievers, invaders and the apostate governments officials/troops who are allied with them," it said.
Al-Shabab, whose name means "The Youth" in Arabic, has carried out suicide bombings in Somalia against military and government targets but has also set off bombs at a college graduation ceremony in Mogadishu, at restaurants and other locations, killing Muslim civilians.
Al-Shabab controlled much of Somalia, which borders Kenya to the east, for several years, including most of the capital Mogadishu. African Union forces pushed the al-Qaida-affiliated group out of Mogadishu in 2011 and Kenya sent in troops that year, further squeezing the group into smaller territory in Somalia's south.
Al-Shabab has said the mall attack was in retribution for Kenyan forces' push into Somalia.
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