At least twenty people were killed during a hotel siege by Islamist gunmen in Mali’s capital of Bamako on Friday, including 18 guests and two Malian police, the country’s interior minister, said.
U.N. officials had previously said 27 bodies were discovered. The interior minister added that 17 guests were also injured along with three Malian police officers, the Associated Press reports.
Over 100 hostages were taken during the assault, according to multiple reports. In a recorded statement carried by Al-Jazeera, an extremist group that split from al-Qaida’s North Africa branch two years ago claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it wanted fighters freed from Mali’s prisons and for attacks against northern Malians to stop.
At first, 170 guests and staff at the Radisson Blu hotel were held by up to 12 gunmen who arrived in a car with diplomatic license plates. An army spokesman said that two Malians and a French national had been killed. France, Turkey and China have confirmed their nationals were among the hostages, and some U.S. citizens were also present.
One of the witnesses said some of the gunmen were speaking English, according to Reuters news agency.
After a few hours, security forces moved into the hotel and began battling the gunmen inside. State television reported 80 hostages escaped as the fighting continued, but several hours after the start of the incident, the Rezidor hotel group, which owns the hotel, said that 125 guests and 13 employees were still in the building. Air France confirmed that its 12 crew members were safe after being evacuated from the hotel. A U.S. military spokesperson confirmed to the AP that six U.S. citizens were among those evacuated from the building.
France’s national gendarme service said “about 40” French special police forces were taking part in the assault on the hotel, according to the AP, and U.S. Africa Command confirmed that American special forces were also assisting. A United Nations spokesman said U.N. “quick-reaction” forces were deployed to the scene.
Niek DeGoeij, a Mali representative for Catholic Relief Services, an international humanitarian relief agency, said a number of his colleagues were initially trapped in their office less than 100 meters from the attack. According to DeGoeij, cellphone service was scrambled by the military but those in the building reached over the internet reported heavy gunfire during the initial raid, and sporadic fire as the day wore on.
According to the BBC, a popular Guinean singer Sekouba Bambino was among those able to get out of the hotel. “I woke up with the sounds of gunshots and for me, it was just small bandits who came in the hotel to claim something. After 20 or 30 minutes, I realized these are not just petty criminals,” he told reporters.
He later told Reuters that he heard the gunmen speaking English. “I heard them say in English ‘Did you load it?’, ‘Let’s go.’ I wasn’t able to see them because in these kinds of situations it’s hard,” he said.
The U.S. Embassy in Bamako issued a warning to citizens in the country on Twitter, saying it was “aware of an ongoing active shooter operation” and telling Americans in the country to seek shelter.
China’s Xinhua news agency reported that several Chinese guests were trapped in the hotel while Turkish state media said six Turkish Airlines personnel were among the hostages.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo tweeted a message of solidarity to Bamako:
The hotel is considered the most secure in Bamako and is frequented by diplomats and members of international organizations.
DeGoeij says Bamako itself is generally an extremely safe city, but with today’s hostage crisis becoming the second terrorist attack on the capital city this year, he worries the area’s security may be on the wane.
“As today’s event ends, the big question is whether this is the new normal and whether we’re going to see similar attempts on a regular basis from here on out,” DeGoeij adds.
The African country’s northern region was taken over by Islamic extremists after a military coup in 2012. Since then, Mali has seen periodic attacks such as the one this past March, where armed assailants shot five people at a popular Bamako restaurant.
France maintains a force of about 1,000 troops in the country, some of whom were said to be involved in the security operation around the hotel.