Friday, 27 September 2013

Kenya shopping mall attack: UK forensic teams lend expertise to search through Westgate rubble

Britain, the US and Israel are among the five nations sending their own forensic experts to help search the rubble of the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi to find and identify the bodies of those killed.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack which began last Saturday, Prime Minister David Cameron phoned the Kenyan authorities to offer any assistance that Britain could provide.

That offer was accepted, according to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with a team of forensic experts arriving in Nairobi on 23 September.

The key focus of their role is to work with the British High Commissioner and ascertain the full extent of the UK casualties in the attack. The number of British people reported to have been killed has already been revised a number of times, between a low of three and a high of six, and could yet rise again.

The experts will also help with the work coroners in the UK need to do in carrying out necessary inquests, but their role is not exclusively in a British capacity.

Involvement in response to a number of recent disasters across the world means that the UK has some of the most experienced investigative teams for dealing with this kind of incident.

Karen Squibb-Williams, director of communication and in-house counsel for the Forensic Science Society, told the BBC: “The experts who have been sent to Kenya will most probably be crime scene managers who are used to attending scenes of major homicides on a regular basis.

“In the wake of the experience of 9/11, and to some extent as a result of the 7/7 bombing in London, the UK has developed considerable skills in assisting with violent incidents.

“In particular we played an enormous part in helping with the aftermath of identification challenges after the tsunami.”

She said the UK police and forensic scientists working in tandem now have a “very strong capability” in what is known as disaster victim identification.

“This could include setting up temporary mortuaries and, if necessary accessing dental records as well as, where appropriate, having effective processes to access information efficiently,” she added.

“DNA analysis is also, of course, a forensic field in which the UK has a particularly strong reputation for capability and innovation.”

Part of the Westgate mall collapsed towards the end of the four-day siege following last Saturday's attack, burying bodies and slowing investigations, although experts have started work even while the army continues to comb the building for further explosives.

Officials say the death toll of 61 civilians, six members of the security forces and five militants is unlikely to rise much further, although some of the attackers’ bodies may still be buried.

However, the Red Cross has said there were still 71 people listed as missing.

Kenya’s chief pathologist, Johansen Oduor, said his team was removing bullets and shrapnel from victims to find out exactly how they were killed, then handing them over to police as evidence.

‘‘A lot of them died from bullet wounds - the body, the head, all over,’’ he said.

‘‘Some also died from grenades, shrapnel.’’

He refused to reveal how many bodies were in the morgue but said he was told to expect more - though he would not say how many.

It was the largest terrorist attack in Kenya since the 1998 bombing of the United States Embassy, and FBI agents were dispatched to do fingerprint, DNA and ballistic analysis on the bodies. They were joined by investigators from Britain, Germany and Canada.

As the investigation continued into the mall attack, FBI agents from New York City, including members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, bomb squad technicians and evidence recovery specialists arrived in Nairobi, a US law enforcement official confirmed.

The international investigation is being coordinated by Interpol, which sent an incident response team that arrived in Nairobi on Wednesday, the Kenyan government said.

The Interpol team includes disaster victim identification and data specialists who will carry out real-time comparisons of evidence collected inside the mall against the France-based agency’s database on DNA and fingerprints from its 190-member country network, said Interpol official Jean-Michel Louboutin.

‘‘Whether it be through comparison of information against Interpol’s global databases, or the issuance of a notice to identify a victim, locate a wanted person, or seek additional information about suspects, we will offer all necessary assistance to help bring those responsible to justice,’’ Louboutin said in a statement.

Teams with sniffer dogs entered the bullet-riddled mall, apparently to check for explosives and victims buried under the rubble of a collapsed part of the building.

Forensic teams could take at least a week to gather evidence, Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku said. "The army told us we would get access to the bodies yesterday, but then said it was too dangerous," a Red Cross official said.

Friday 27 September 2013


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