GRAND-BASSAM, Cote d’Ivoire: Gunmen killed 16 people at an Ivory Coast resort Sunday, leaving bodies strewn on the beach, in an attack claimed by an Al-Qaeda affiliate as fears grow of a mounting jihadist threat in West Africa.
Armed with grenades and assault riffles, the attackers stormed three hotels in the sleepy resort of Grand-Bassam, popular with expats, around 40 kilometres (25 miles) east of the commercial hub Abidjan.
Witnesses described panic as the gunmen sprayed bullets across the beach, and one told AFP they heard an assailant shouting “Allahu Akbar” — Arabic for “God is greatest”.
“I saw one of the attackers from far away,” says Abbas El-Roz, a Lebanese salesman, who was in the pool of a hotel when the attackers struck. “He had a Kalashnikov and a grenade belt. He was looking for people.”
Fourteen civilians and two special forces troops were killed in the shooting spree, along with six assailants, according to Ivory Coast’s President Alassane Ouattara.
“The toll is heavy,” he said as he arrived in Grand-Bassam, describing the killings as a “terrorist” attack.
One French and one German national were among the dead, according to Interior Minister Hamed Bakayoko.
The US and former colonial master France offered to help the Ivorian government find the perpetrators, with French President Francois Hollande condemning the “cowardly attack”.
The US-based SITE Intelligence Group said Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the terror group’s North African affiliate, had claimed responsibility for the attack.
AQIM said in a statement three of its fighters had been killed.
West African nations have scrambled to boost security in the wake of jihadist attacks on tourist hotspots in the capitals of Mali and Burkina Faso, which were also claimed by the group.
Sunday’s attack also bore grim similarities to the Islamist gun and grenade assault on a Tunisian beach resort last June, which left 38 foreign holidaymakers dead.
The assailants, who were “heavily armed and wearing balaclavas, fired at guests at the L’Etoile du Sud, a large hotel which was full of expats in the current heatwave,” a witness told Agence France-Presse.
Inside the hotel, an Agence France-Presse journalist saw a bullet lodged in the glass front of the bar’s refrigerator and a large pool of blood on the floor.
Carine Boa, a Belgian-Ivorian national who teaches at an international high school in Abidjan, was at one of the beach bars with her two sons when the gunmen arrived
“We were really scared. We thought of the people at the Bataclan,” she said, referring to the concert venue attacked by gunmen during the November’s terror attacks in the French capital when 130 people were killed.