At least 18 people were killed in Mali’s capital as gunmen claiming loyalty to al-Qaeda took over a luxury hotel, the latest in a wave of jihadist attacks on three continents.
There are no longer any hostages at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Interior Minister Salif Traore said on state television. The government said initially that 170 people were being held. The army said at least 18 people died, and Traore said security forces are preparing for a final assault on gunmen trapped in one hotel room.
The attack began at 7 a.m. when gunmen burst into the lobby and began firing, hotel manager Gary Ellis said. In the rescue operation, people covered in blood were carried out of the hotel by Malian security forces, while dozens of others walked out one by one. About 76 hostages were rescued, said Traore. It wasn’t clear what happened to the other people who reportedly had been held.
Troops stormed the hotel and moved room to room evacuating guests, a United Nations official said by e-mail from Bamako. French and U.S. security forces aided the operation.
The raid came a week after Islamic State militants killed 129 people in a series of shootings and explosions in Paris, the worst atrocity in Europe in almost a decade. Beirut and Ankara have also been hit by suicide bombings in recent weeks.
Mali was plunged into violence after a military coup in March 2012 left a power vacuum that allowed Islamist militants to join with separatists and seize the north of the country. While French forces pushed the militants out of most of those strongholds in 2013, the government is struggling to regain authority there. At least 40 UN peacekeepers have been killed in hit-and-run attacks in the north since the mission began two years ago, making it the most deadly peacekeeping operation globally.
Al-Qaeda in Maghreb and the militant Morabetoun group claimed joint responsibility for Friday’s attack, Al-Akhbar news agency reported, citing a spokesman for the groups.
“You have got kind of a copycat situation at the moment following the incidents that have been seen in Paris and elsewhere,” Jakkie Cilliers, executive director at the Pretoria- based Institute for Security Studies, said by phone. “The scale of this attack is a source of concern.”
It’s too early to say if the Mali raid is related to last week’s attacks in Paris claimed by the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, U.S. Africa Command General David Rodriguez told reporters in Washington.
“ISIL is not a factor in Mali at this point,” he said.
The captives inside the Radisson included 140 guests and 30 employees, Rezidor Hotel Group, owner of the hotel, said on its website.
At least seven Chinese citizens were among those trapped, Xinhua reported, while the Indian Foreign Ministry said 20 of its citizens are thought to be staying in the hotel. Six Americans were rescued, Africa Command spokesman Mark Cheadle told reporters in Washington, while Turkey’s official news agency Anadolu said five Turkish Airlines staff have been released. Agence France-Presse said 12 Air France employees were safe.
“What we know is that the attackers are in the hotel and have automatic weapons,” UN spokesman Olivier Salgado said by phone from Bamako. The French embassy reported “explosions and gunshots” and advised its citizens to remain at home, while the U.S. embassy urged people to “shelter in place.”
“They may have been motivated by the Paris attacks, I doubt there is any direct link,” Bjorn Dahlin van Wees, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said in an e-mail from London. “In the past year, there have been growing signs of Islamist activities also outside Mali’s volatile northern region, including an attack on a restaurant in Bamako in March, and the Malian authorities are struggling to contain the threat posed by terrorist outfits.”
– Bloomberg [Francois Rihouay, Pauline Bax and Olivier Monnier; with assistance from David Whitehouse and Caroline Alexander]