Five people including two Europeans and a Malian policeman died in an assault on a Bamako nightclub Saturday, the first attack targeting Westerners in a city braced for jihadist violence since 2012.
At least one masked gunman entered the club in the Malian capital around 1:00 am local time and sprayed the venue with automatic gunfire and threw grenades, witnesses said.
No group claimed responsibility but suspicion will fall on Islamist rebels operating in Mali’s vast desert north, which has struggled for stability since a coup three years ago.
The Mali government described the massacre as a “terrorist” attack by “those who have no other goal than to push away the prospect of peace” — a statement seen as referring to jihadists.
Customers of La Terrasse, in the lively Hippodrome district, said the masked assailant arrived in a black four-wheel drive and headed to the upstairs restaurant and bar area to begin shooting.
As he left he lobbed two grenades at a security patrol and one went off, killing a policeman, witnesses said.
“The killer came here because there were foreigners. He wanted to kill foreigners, that’s for sure,” a waiter at the venue told AFP.
Malian police and the United Nations MINUSMA peacekeeping force said a French national, a Belgian and three Malians had died in the attack.
The Frenchman was named as 30-year-old Fabien Guyomard, a single man with no children, who had lived in Bamako since 2007 and worked at ICMS Africa, a US company specializing in luxury construction.
Hospital sources said eight people were wounded, including three Swiss nationals, one of them a woman.
In the moments after the attack an AFP correspondent witnessed the French victim being stretchered out of the venue while the bodies of the police officer, a guard and the Belgian could be seen outside.
Dozens of police officers secured the area but witnesses were initially refusing to testify, fearing reprisals.
‘Death to whites’
Police announced they had arrested two Malians soon after but later said the pair were not involved, describing them as “not terrorists, but bandits.”
French President Francois Hollande denounced the “cowardly attack,” vowing to meet Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to offer Paris’s help to its former colony.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said the act of “opening fire on a restaurant filled with innocent civilians only strengthens our resolve to fight terrorism in all its forms wherever it lives.”
The Belgian victim had been working for the European Union in Mali, where the 28-nation bloc runs a mission to assist police and national guard forces, Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said.
The gunman killed the Belgian and two of the Malians in the street before entering the club, according to a diplomatic source.
“They reportedly shouted ‘death to whites’ on entering the restaurant…. It sounds like an attack against the presence of Europeans. Then they apparently targeted the French national,” the source said.
Zakaria Maiga, who told AFP he was a friend of Guyomard, described how they been dancing upstairs when the gunshots rang out.
Maiga said there was immediate panic and he threw himself to the ground, before escaping the club and running to safety.
“Things happened too fast. I did not see the shooter,” he said.
Mali’s vast desert north is riven by ethnic rivalries and an Islamist insurgency.
Jihadists linked to al-Qaeda controlled an area of desert the size of Texas for more than nine months until a French-led military intervention in 2013 that partly drove them from the region.
The west African nation is also struggling with a militant Tuareg movement that has launched four uprisings since 1962 to fight the army over the territory they claim as their homeland and call Azawad.
But day-to-day life in the capital has been largely unaffected by the northern conflict and bloodshed blamed on terrorism is rare in the city of 1.8 million.
“It’s the first attack of this type in Bamako,” said Pierre Boilley, an analyst specialising in sub-Saharan Africa.
More than a dozen French citizens have been taken captive in Africa in recent years, but deaths of Westerners at the hands of jihadists in Mali remain an uncommon, if chilling, reminder of the country’s instability.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the 2013 murders of two French journalists shot dead in Mali’s desert town of Kidal — Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon.
Saturday’s attack came less than 24 hours after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged Mali’s Tuareg rebel groups to sign a peace deal agreed nearly a week ago in Algeria.
The Malian government signed the agreement last weekend, along with some northern armed groups, but the main Tuareg rebel alliance, known as the Coordination, asked for more time.
“Malians must understand that there is nothing above peace,” said Prime Minister Modibo Keita at the end of a defense council meeting chaired by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, calling on his countrymen “not to be distracted” at a crucial moment in negotiations.