OUALADOUGOU – Security forces were hunting Sunday for any possible surviving gunmen from an attack on a top hotel in Burkina Faso that left at least 29 people dead and showed the expanding reach of regional jihadis in West Africa.
The drama saw Burkinabe troops, backed by French special forces, battle militants who stormed the four-star Splendid Hotel, which is popular with foreigners and United Nations staff.
At least 14 or 15 foreigners were among the dead, according to differing tolls given by the Burkina government and the public prosecutor.
Burkina Faso has declared three days of national mourning following the onslaught, which echoed another al-Qaida attack last year on a luxury hotel in neighboring Mali where 20 people were killed, mostly foreigners.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed the latest attack on behalf of an affiliate, saying the gunmen were from the Al-Murabitoun group of notorious Algerian extremist Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
It is still not clear how many attackers took part in the onslaught — the bodies of three have been identified, but some witnesses reported seeing more.
Burkina Faso Interior Minister Simon Compaore said security forces were carrying out careful searches, while at the scene of the attack a security cordon was widened on Sunday.
Investigators wearing white protective gloves were seen in the streets around the Splendid and the Cappuccino cafe, which was also attacked. A 12-strong team of French investigators also arrived in Burkina Faso to assist with the investigation, according to a diplomatic source.
“People are afraid. Anyone who’s not afraid isn’t normal — this is guys with guns,” said Souleymane Ouedraogo, who lives near the scene of the violence.
Until recently Burkina Faso had largely escaped the tide of Islamist violence spreading in the restive Sahel region and the hotel assault will heighten fears that jihadi groups are casting their net wider in search of targets in West Africa.
President Roch Marc Christian Kabore, who took office just last month, said Saturday that the country was in shock.
“For the first time in its history, our country has fallen victim to a series of barbaric terrorist attacks,” he said, adding that the people of Burkina would nevertheless “emerge victorious.
The attack began around 7:45 p.m. on Friday when an unknown number of attackers stormed the 147-room Splendid Hotel in the heart of Ouagadougou.
The hotel and surrounding area became a battleground as Burkina Faso troops, backed by French forces based in the city under a regional counterterrorism initiative, launched an attempt to retake the hotel around 2:00 a.m.
Internal Security minister Compaore said the foreign dead included four Canadians, three Ukrainians, two French nationals, two Portuguese, two Swiss and a Dutch person.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier said six of his compatriots were killed but this figure may include some of the dead as yet unidentified, or dual nationals.
The U.S. State Department has said one American was also killed.
Public prosecutor Maiza Sereme, meanwhile, gave a slightly differing toll on Sunday, stating that 15 foreign nationals had been identified, including four Canadians, two Ukrainians, one Franco-Ukrainian, two French, two Swiss, one Portuguese, one Dutch, one American and one Libyan.
Sereme added that seven victims remained unidentified of whom three appeared to be Westerners.
Compaore said the bodies of three jihadis had been identified, all of them young men.
Several guests managed to escape from the hotel through side entrances, including labor minister Clement Sawadogo, who emerged unscathed.
“It was horrible … there was blood everywhere. They were firing at people at close range,” Yannick Sawadogo, one of those who escaped, told AFP.
The prime minister of Mali, Modibo Keita, on Sunday said his country would work together with Burkina to confront terrorism.
“Mali has experienced such events and continues to experience them,” he said on arrival in Ouagadougou.
“It is thus our duty to come here and express our compassion and say that we have decided to go forward together, hand in hand, to fight against terrorism and jihadism.”
Highlighting the fragile security situation, an elderly Australian couple were kidnapped on Friday in Burkina Faso’s northern Baraboule region, near the border with Niger and Mali.
Malian militant group Ansar Dine told AFP the couple were being held by jihadis from the al-Qaida-linked Emirate of the Sahara.
The pair had been running a surgical clinic in the north of the country since 1972, and no reason has been given for their kidnapping, a statement from their family said.
The hotel attack was the first of its kind in Ouagadougou and came as people were tentatively enjoying a return to stability after November elections ended a shaky transitional period since veteran leader Blaise Compaore’s 2014 ouster, including a failed coup.
Al-Murabitoun had already begun to move into the impoverished country of around 17 million. In April, it claimed the abduction of the Romanian security chief of a mine in the country’s north.