BAMAKO: Gun-toting jihadists took more than 100 people hostage for around nine hours at a top hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako on Friday, in an attack claimed by an Al-Qaeda affiliate that left at least 27 people dead.
The assault, which was claimed by the Al-Murabitoun group of notorious one-eyed Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, added to fears over the global jihadist threat, a week after the devastating Paris attacks that killed 130 people.
Those attacks was claimed by the Islamic State group.
The Malian government declared a 10-day nationwide state of emergency Friday evening over the assault and called three days of mourning for the victims, who included three Chinese, an American and a Belgian.
The White House condemned the attack, which began around 0700 GMT with the gunmen shooting their way inside the hotel and taking guests and staff hostage.
Malian television broadcast chaotic scenes from inside the building as police and other security personnel ushered bewildered guests along corridors to safety.
Special forces staged a dramatic floor-by-floor rescue, ending the siege after about nine hours.
“The hostage-taking is over. We are in the process of securing the hotel,” a Malian military source said as civil protection officers removed the victims in orange body bags.
Malian security sources said at least 27 hostages had been killed and said French special forces had assisted in the rescue.
Two US special forces members who happened to be in the area also helped in the operation.
Beijing’s state media said that three Chinese citizens had been killed while a further four managed to escape.
A senior US State Department official confirmed a US citizen was among the victims with another dozen Americans surviving the attack.
And a Belgian regional assembly official, in Mali for a convention, was also among those killed, his parliament said.
In an audio recording broadcast by Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television, Belmokhtar’s group said it was responsible.
“We the Murabitoun, with the participation of our brothers from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, claim the hostage-taking operation at the Radisson hotel,” a man’s voice said.
France’s defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Belmokhtar, one of the world’s most-wanted men, was indeed “likely” the brains behind the assault.
The jihadist is also accused of masterminding a hostage-taking at a gas plant in Algeria in 2013, in which around 40 mostly Western hostages were killed.
The palatial 190-room Radisson, regarded as one of west Africa’s best hotels, is a favourite with entrepreneurs, tourists and government officials from across the world.
Witnesses talked of around a dozen armed assailants, but the Malian military source reported the deaths of three “terrorists who were shot or blew themselves up”, adding that the total number of gunmen was not more than four.
Attackers ‘spoke English’
Guinean singer Sekouba Bambino Diabate, who was among the survivors, told AFP the gunmen spoke English among themselves.
Many of the guests were still in their rooms when the hostage crisis started.
“They were firing inside the hotel, in the corridors,” Diabate said.
A paramedic said three security guards had been wounded while an AFP correspondent saw a police officer, who had been shot, being evacuated by security forces.
The men are believed to have entered the compound around 0700 GMT, at the same time as a car with diplomatic plates. Many guests were still in their rooms.
The full list of the victims’ nationalities had yet to be released.
India said 20 of its nationals were freed. Twelve Air France employees were declared safe by the airline, while seven Turkish Airlines crew members, seven Algerians and two Germans were also freed.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon led international condemnation of the “horrific terrorist attack” suggesting the violence was aimed at destroying peace efforts in the country.
French intervention in 2013
Malian soldiers, police and special forces were at the scene soon after the attack began, along with members of the UN’s MINUSMA peacekeeping force in Mali and French troops deployed in west Africa under Operation Barkhane.
France has more than 1,000 troops in its former colony, a key battleground of the Barkhane counter-terror mission spanning five countries in Africa’s restive Sahel region.
The attack follows a hotel siege in August in the central Mali town of Sevare in which five UN workers were killed along with four soldiers and four attackers.
Five people, including a French citizen and a Belgian, were also killed in an assault on a Bamako restaurant in March, the first of its kind in the city.
Northern Mali fell under the control of jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda in 2012.
The Islamists were largely ousted by a French-led military operation launched in January 2013.
But large swathes of Mali remain lawless and prone to attacks.