BAMAKO, Mali (AFP) — Suspected Islamist gunmen stormed a luxury hotel in Mali’s capital Friday, firing automatic weapons and seizing more than 100 guests and staff in a hostage-taking that has left at least 22 people dead.
Special forces carried out a dramatic floor-by-floor rescue at the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, according to local television and security sources, eventually ending the siege about nine hours after it had begun.
The assault added to fears about the global jihadist threat a week after the Paris massacre that left 130 people dead, although it was not immediately clear if there was a link.
Malian television broadcast chaotic scenes from inside the hotel as police and other security personnel ushered bewildered and terrified guests along corridors and across the main lobby.
“They currently have no more hostages in their hands and forces are in the process of tracking them down,” Security Minister Salif Traore told a news conference.
Malian security sources said at least 22 hostages had been killed, adding that French special forces were “participating in operations alongside Malians.”
Army Cmdr. Modibo Nama Traore said 126 people had been escorted to safety, and that at least one guest reported the attackers instructed him to recite verses from the Quran as proof of his Muslim faith before he was allowed to leave.
Two of the gunmen had been killed, according to a Malian military source.
“The hostage-taking is over. We are in the process of securing the hotel,” the source said on condition of anonymity, as civil protection officers removed the victims in orange body bags.
Two US special forces troops who happened to be at the nearby US embassy for meetings assisted in the rescue of six Americans.
The palatial 190-room Radisson, regarded as one of west Africa’s best hotels, attracts entrepreneurs, tourists and government officials from across the world with its luxury spa, outdoor pool and conference suites.
Foreign guests described seeing a light-skinned man lying dead on the floor as they escaped early on.
Witnesses described around a dozen armed assailants, while security sources spoke of two or three “jihadist” attackers.
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.
An AFP photographer saw a white man appear several times at a window on the second second floor, apparently waving in desperation for help.
Smell of smoke
A Chinese tourist quoted by the state-run Xinhua news agency said the “smell of smoke spread through the corridors and rooms, the Internet was cut and the hotel reception was unresponsive to phone calls.”
The men are believed to have entered the hotel around 0700 GMT at the same time as a car with diplomatic plates, with many guests still in their rooms.
A Belgian regional assembly official, in Mali for a convention, was among those killed, the parliament said.
India said 20 of its nationals were among the hostages while Xinhua said at least seven Chinese were involved.
Twelve Air France employees were in a “safe place,” the company announced, while seven Turkish Airlines crew members were freed.
Seven Algerians and two Germans were also freed while the status of four Belgian guests remains unclear.
Malian soldiers, police and special forces were at the scene as a security perimeter was set up, along with members of the UN’s MINUSMA peacekeeping force in Mali and the French troops fighting jihadists in west Africa under Operation Barkhane.
Paris was sending around 40 officers from an elite French unit of paramilitary police specialized in hostage situations.
France has more than 1,000 troops in its former colony, a key battleground of Operation Barkhane, a counter-terror mission spanning five countries in Africa’s restive Sahel region.
Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who was in Chad for a summit of regional leaders, cut short his trip to fly home.
Questions were raised over security at the hotel, with one regular guest, a French consultant,saying that metal detector tests were not always used on cars entering the compound.
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 killed in an assault on a Bamako restaurant in March, the first such incident in the capital targeting Westerners.
Islamist groups have waged attacks in Mali despite a June peace deal between former Tuareg rebels in the north and rival pro-government armed groups.
The north fell under the control of Tuareg rebels and jihadist groups linked to al-Qaeda in mid-2012.
The Islamists sidelined the Tuareg to take sole control but were largely ousted by a French-led military operation launched in January 2013.
They have since launched sporadic attacks from desert hideouts and large swathes of Mali remain beyond the control of government and foreign forces.
In a recording authenticated by Malian authorities this week, a jihadist leader in Mali denounced the peace deal and called for further attacks against France.
AP contributed to this report.