OUAGADOUGOU/PARIS – Three jihadis can be seen on video standing next to burning cars a little more than an hour after an assault began on a hotel and cafe in Burkina Faso’s capital, raising new questions Tuesday about why it took so long for security forces to find and kill the militants blamed for at least 30 deaths.
The video shot by The Associated Press shows one man wearing a tunic and turban, carrying what appears to be a Kalashnikov rifle around 8:45 p.m., a little over an hour after they first attacked the Cappuccino Cafe. A second armed man can be seen wearing a large vest, and they are later joined by a third man with a pale scarf on his head. Explosions can be heard in the distance.
On Tuesday, authorities in Burkina Faso also released new details on how they ultimately killed the three men who were part of the North Africa branch of al-Qaida, working in connection with Algerian jihadi Moktar Belmoktar and his forces. Officials acknowledged though that it was more than four hours after the attack began before security forces tried to enter the hotel.
In the darkness of night and panic amid gunfire, some witnesses late Friday mistakenly identified at least two of the jihadis as women, and some even said they believed there was a fourth attacker. Burkina Faso Security Minister Simon Compaore said Tuesday that several people have been detained and questioned but he declined to give further details, citing the ongoing investigation.
In a statement published by SITE Intelligence Group, though, al-Qaida identified three “mujahedeen brothers” as the ones responsible: Al-Battar al-Ansari, Abu Muhammad al-Buqali al-Ansari and Ahmed al-Fulani al-Ansari.
Some of the victims openly expressed frustration Tuesday that it had taken authorities so long to find the attackers. Allassane Baguian, an American who was attending a meeting on the fourth floor of the hotel at the time of attack, was shot in the leg four times and another bullet just skimmed his head.
“No one was prepared for these attacks,” he said. “So we were under gunfire from 7:45 p.m. until 3 a.m. It’s God who saved us because these people had the time to carry out their crime,” he said. “That three people could challenge a country, it’s incomprehensible.”
Witnesses said the assault began around 7:30 p.m. Friday as dozens of people gathered for dinner and drinks at the Cappuccino Cafe and its terrace. The attackers then assauled the Splendid Hotel next door.
Natacha Ble, a 23-year-old waitress from Cote d’Ivoire who had only been working for a few weeks at the restaurant Taxi Brousse across the street, said she saw the three men coming but never imagined they were jihadis, saying they looked more like traditional herders from the Peul ethnic group in their tunics than Islamic militants.
“I started wondering what these Peul herders were coming to do in a place like this?” she recalled. “Then one of them headed toward the Cappuccino restaurant and began opening fire.”
Within 30 minutes the president of Burkina Faso had asked the French ambassador for help, according to a French official who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media. It would be four more hours, though, before French special forces arrived at the scene to help flush out the attackers and Burkina Faso’s military was awaiting their help.
The security forces initially thought that the attack on the cafe was meant to divert them from the hotel as the main target, said a Burkinabe security official, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to journalists. In the end, none of the 30 people who were killed were at the hotel.
Around 1 a.m., about 50 security forces including the French, Burkinabe and an American tried to enter the hotel but were fired upon and one French special forces member took a bullet in the leg.
Under the cover of an armored vehicle, the forces entered the hotel and began searching the rooms floor-by-floor but didn’t find the jihadis inside.
Authorities now know that they had left the hotel and were holed up in the Taxi Brousse restaurant across the street after its employees had fled, the Burkinabe security official said. From there they continued to fire their weapons and security forces came under fire when leaving the hotel around 4:30 a.m.
“In leaving the Splendid Hotel, one armored vehicle came under fire from the direction of the Taxi Brousse across the street,” the official said. “One attacker even came out of the restaurant to shoot at the vehicle.”
It was then that Burkinabe and French forces realized that the attackers had been hiding at the restaurant.
“Finally the other two attackers came out to fire upon us and it was around 7 a.m. The jihadi attack on a top Burkina Faso hotel was carried out by six gunmen, three of whom are still on the run, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Tuesday.
“Six individuals opened fire on the Cappuccino cafe before taking refuge in the Splendid hotel” in Friday’s attack in the capital Ouagadougou, Valls told parliament.
“Three were killed and three are still being sought,” he said.
Burkina Faso had not made public the number of assailants in the attack that left 30 people dead, many of them foreigners.
Authorities in Ouagadougou said the bodies of three assailants had been identified, but several witnesses have said they saw more than three attackers.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on Monday named three gunmen involved in the assault.
It published photos of the three young gunmen dressed in military fatigues and wielding weapons, identifying them as Battar al-Ansari, Abu Muhammad al-Buqali al-Ansari and Ahmed al-Fulani al-Ansari.
In a statement carried by U.S.-based monitoring group SITE, AQIM said the Splendid Hotel was “one of the most dangerous dens of global espionage in the west of the African continent.”
That attack came weeks after jihadis claimed an assault on a top hotel in Bamako, capital of neighboring Mali, that killed 20 people.
Valls noted that the African democracies have become prime targets of the Islamist jihadis.
“Africa is the target of these terrorist acts, the target of these terrorist groups. And especially countries like Burkina Faso, Mali and Tunisia, which represent democracy and calm” on the continent.
Also in Ouagadougou Tuesday, the government met with about 50 relatives of the hotel attack victims “to give them information on the security situation and the situation of the deceased,” including when they could recover the bodies, Interior Minister Simon Compaore said.
Questions about compensation, funerals and an eventual monument to the victims were also discussed, the relatives said.
Tributes poured in Tuesday for well-known Franco-Moroccan photographer Leila Alaoui, who was severely wounded in the attack and late Monday became the 30th and latest victim of the bloody attack.
In France, where she was born, President Francois Hollande paid his respects while parliament observed a minute of silence in memory of the dead.
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 West Africa.
Burkina Faso has been criticized for a delayed and ill-equipped response to the attack by its security forces, which have been weakened by recent political turmoil.
In another reminder of the country’s fragile security situation, an elderly Australian couple were kidnapped on Friday in the northern Baraboule region, near the border with Niger and Mali.