Islamic extremists in Mali kill at least 19 in hotel attack
BAMAKO, Mali — Islamic extremists armed with guns and grenades stormed the Radisson hotel in Mali's capital city of Bamako on Friday. In response, security forces swarmed in to free guests floor by floor. As evening fell, officials said no more hostages were being held and that at least 19 people had been killed.
U.S. and French special operations forces assisted Malian troops in responding to the attack by an unknown number of gunmen. Shooting continued into the late afternoon, and a U.N. official said two attackers were dead.
An Islamic extremist group known as the Mourabitounes claimed responsibility for the siege. The group is led by Moktar Belmoktar, a former commander of al-Qaida, the group that carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York.
Mali is a former French colony, which only became fully independent of France in 1960. Since then, France has remained involved in the region. Many in France saw it as a new assault on their country's interests a week after the Paris attacks.
Troops Guided People To Safety
As people ran for their lives near the hotel along a dirt road, troops in full combat gear pointed the way to safety, sometimes escorting civilians with a protective arm around their shoulders. Later, local TV showed heavily armed troops in what appeared to be a lobby, apparently led by an officer.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said 19 people died — 18 in the hotel and one Malian soldier killed in the fighting.
A Malian military official initially said there were 10 gunmen, but by later in the day, it was not clear how many assailants took part.
Malian special forces went "floor by floor" to free hostages, Malian army Commander Modibo Nama Traore said.
U.S. special forces assisted the Malian troops, said Colonel Mark Cheadle of the U.S. Army's Africa Command. At least six Americans were evacuated from the hotel, although it was unclear how many were inside, he added.
About 40 French special police forces played a support role. The French Defense Ministry said its troops arrived in Bamako to support Malian forces.
Attack Perceived As Focused On France
About 170 guests and employees were taken hostage early Friday. Some apparently escaped in the initial chaos or hid in the sprawling hotel, which has 190 rooms.
"It was more like a real terrorist attack," said U.N. Mission spokesman Olivier Salgado. "The intention was clearly to kill, not to necessarily have people being hostage."
Traore said at least one guest reported the attackers instructed him to recite verses from the Muslim holy book, the Quran, before he was allowed to leave.
The guests included visitors from France, Belgium, Germany, China, India, Canada, Ivory Coast and Turkey. Nonetheless, the attack was perceived by many in France, particularly in the government, as a new attack on French interests.
Group Split From Al-Qaida
The Mourabitounes split from al-Qaida's North Africa branch two years ago. The group said it wanted fighters freed from Mali's prisons and for attacks against northern Malians to stop.
The extremist group was formed in 2013 after Belmoktar left the group al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and fused with a Malian group. The statement issued Friday said the Mourabitounes had attacked in coordination with the "Sahara Emirate" affiliated with al-Qaida.
The French military operation in Mali in 2013 against Islamic extremists who were holding the northern half of the country was the first of several foreign interventions that French President Francois Hollande has launched. Those interventions have prompted increased threats against France and French interests from Islamic extremist groups.
"This could be a strike at important French interests because the French government invested so much military energy in pushing the Islamic rebels out of Mali," said Jens David Ohlin, an international law expert at Cornell University. "While Mali might not have the same emotional significance to the French as Paris does, it is certainly an important part of the French military strategy."
"We should yet again stand firm and show our solidarity with a friendly country, Mali," Hollande said.
President Barack Obama said he was monitoring the situation.
Victims In State Of Shock
The gunmen had stormed the hotel shouting "God is great" in Arabic before firing on the guards, Traore said. An employee named Tamba Diarra said the attackers used grenades.
Ambulances rushed to the hotel and a military helicopter flew overhead.
Monique Kouame Affoue Ekonde, from Ivory Coast, said she and six other people, including a Turkish woman, were escorted out by security forces as the gunmen rushed toward the fifth or sixth floor.
She added that she was "in a state of shock."
Flight Crews Safely Evacuated
Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said four Belgians had been registered at the hotel.
Chinese state TV, citing its diplomats in Mali, reported about 10 Chinese citizens took shelter in their rooms, and all were reported safe. All are employees of Chinese companies working in Mali.
Also reported safe were 12 members of an Air France flight crew and five from Turkish Airlines. All 20 guests from India were safely evacuated as well, said Vikas Swarup, spokesman for India's Foreign Ministry.
The U.N. mission sent security reinforcements and medical aid to the scene, said U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq. He said the United Nations had a few staff members in the hotel but they were all safely out.
Terror Attacks Have Increased In Northern Mali
Northern Mali remains insecure and terrorist attacks have extended farther south this year, including the capital. In March masked gunmen shot up a restaurant in Bamako that is popular with foreigners, killing five people.
France has 3,500 troops operating in Mali and four other countries in the Sahel region of Africa as part of a counterterrorism operation. The French ministry did not specify how many soldiers were sent to Bamako.