BAMAKO – Islamist militants killed 19 people in an attack on a top hotel in the capital of Mali on Friday before Malian commandos stormed the building and rescued 170 people, many of them foreigners.
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita announced the death toll and said seven people were wounded in the attack, which has been claimed by jihadi group Al Mourabitoun and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Friday’s assault on the Radisson Blu hotel is the latest in a series of deadly raids this year on high-profile targets in Mali, which has battled Islamist rebels based in its desert north for years.
“Tonight the death toll is heavy,” Keita said on state television, declaring a 10-day state of emergency and three days of national mourning. He said two militants also died.
The attack is a sharp setback for former colonial power France, which has stationed 3,500 troops in northern Mali to try to restore stability after a rebellion in 2012 by ethnic Tuaregs that was later hijacked by jihadis linked to al-Qaida.
A security source said the siege was over by around 4 p.m. local time and two militants were dead.
A United Nations official said U.N. peacekeepers searching the hotel had made a preliminary count of 27 bodies.
“At first I thought it was a carjacking. Then they killed two guards in front of me and shot another man in the stomach and wounded him and I knew it was something more,” said Modi Coulibaly, a Malian legal expert who saw the assault start.
State television showed troops brandishing AK47s in the lobby of the Radisson Blu, one of the capital Bamako’s smartest hotels and beloved of foreigners. A body lay under a brown blanket at the bottom of a flight of stairs.
Peacekeepers saw 12 dead bodies in the basement of the hotel and another 15 on the second floor, the U.N. official said on condition of anonymity. He added that the U.N. troops were still helping Malian authorities search the hotel.
The U.S. State Department said one American had been killed. Earlier, the White House said it was working to locate all Americans in Mali, and it offered to help with an investigation and urged its citizens to limit their movements around Bamako.
A man who worked for a Belgian regional parliament was also among the dead, the assembly said. France’s Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he was not aware of any French nationals killed.
Minister of Internal Security Col. Salif Traore said the gunmen burst through a security barrier at 7 a.m., spraying the area with gunfire and shouting “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great” in Arabic.
The attacks are a slap in the face for France, which has stationed 3,500 troops in northern Mali to try to restore stability after a 2012 Tuareg rebellion which was later hijacked by al-Qaida-linked jihadis.
They also put a spotlight back on veteran militant leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar months after he was reported killed in an airstrike.
Bursts of gunfire were heard as the assailants went through the hotel room by room and floor by floor, one senior security source and a witness said.
Some people were freed by the attackers after showing they could recite verses from the Quran, while others managed to escape or were brought out by security forces.
One of the rescued hostages, celebrated Guinean singer Sekouba “Bambino” Diabate, said he had overheard two of the assailants speaking English as they searched an adjacent room.
“We heard shots coming from the reception area. I didn’t dare go out of my room because it felt like this wasn’t just simple pistols — these were shots from military weapons,” Diabate said by phone.
“The attackers went into the room next to mine. I stayed still, hidden under the bed, not making a noise,” he said. “I heard them say in English ‘Did you load it?’, ‘Let’s go.’ ”
The raid on the hotel, which lies just west of the city center near government ministries and diplomatic offices, came a week after Islamic State militants killed 129 people in Paris.
Twelve Air France flight crew members were in the hotel but all were brought out safely, the French national carrier said.
A Turkish official said five of seven Turkish Airlines staff had also managed to flee. China’s Xinhua News Agency said three Chinese citizens had been killed in the attack.
Keita cut short a trip to a regional summit in Chad, his office said.
Northern Mali was occupied by Islamist fighters, some with links to al-Qaida, for most of 2012. They were driven out by a French-led military operation, but sporadic violence has continued in Mali’s central belt on the southern reaches of the Sahara, and in Bamako.
One security source said as many as 10 gunmen had stormed the building, although the company that runs the hotel, Rezidor Group, said it understood that there were only two attackers.
Al Mourabitoun has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks, including an assault on a hotel in the town of Sevare, 600 km (375 miles) northeast of Bamako, in August in which 17 people including five U.N. staff were killed.
One of its leaders, Belmokhtar, is blamed for a large-scale assault on an Algerian gas field in 2013 that left scores dead — including 10 Japanese. He is seen as a major figure in insurgencies across North Africa.
In the wake of last week’s Paris attacks, an Islamic State militant in Syria said the organization viewed France’s military intervention in Mali as another reason to attack France and French interests.
“This is just the beginning. We also haven’t forgotten what happened in Mali,” said the non-Syrian fighter, who was contacted online. “The bitterness from Mali, the arrogance of the French, will not be forgotten at all.”
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