Room-by-room rescue in Mali frees 170 hostages
BAMAKO, Mali—Special forces, including Malian, French and two American soldiers who happened to be in the area, staged a dramatic floor-by-floor rescue, which ended a nine-hour siege by jihadist gunmen of a top hotel in the Mali capital and freed 170 hostages, many of them foreigners.
Mali yesterday began three days of national mourning and declared a state of emergency over the assault that left 21 people dead.
The siege, claimed by al-Qaida affiliate the al-Mourabitoun group led by notorious, one-eyed Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, ended after Malian and international troops stormed the luxury Radisson Blu hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako.
The attack came as fears mount over terrorist threats a week after devastating attacks in Paris that killed 130 people claimed by the Islamic State group, which also said it had downed a Russian passenger jet in Egypt weeks before.
The Malian government declared a 10-day nationwide state of emergency from midnight on Friday over the assault and called three days of mourning for the victims, who included several Russians, three Chinese, an American and a Belgian.
“Terror will not win” and “long live Mali, terrorism shall not pass,” President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said in a televised address, revising an earlier death toll to 21. Two of the attackers were killed.
Malian security sources, who had reported a higher toll, said more than 100 people were taken hostage in the raid while at least three “terrorists” were killed or blew themselves up.
Mali has been torn apart by unrest since the north fell under the control of jihadist groups linked to the al-Qaida international terror network in 2012.
The Islamists were largely ousted by a French-led military operation launched the following year, but large swathes of Mali remain lawless.
United Nations (UN) Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned Friday’s “horrific terrorist attack,” suggesting the violence was aimed at destroying peace efforts in the country.
The assault began at about 7 a.m. (0700 GMT) on Friday, when gunmen pulled up at the hotel and started shooting their way inside, taking guests and staff hostage.
Malian television broadcast chaotic scenes from inside the building as police and other security personnel ushered bewildered guests along corridors to safety.
In an audio recording broadcast by Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television, Belmokhtar’s group claimed responsibility.
“We the Mourabitoun, with the participation of our brothers from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, claim the hostage-taking operation at the Radisson Hotel,” a man’s voice said.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Belmokhtar, one of the world’s most-wanted men, was indeed “likely” the brains behind the assault.
The jihadist is also accused of being the ring-leader of an attack on a gas plant in Algeria in 2013, in which around 40 mostly Western hostages were killed.
The palatial 190-room Radisson, regarded as one of west Africa’s best hotels, is a favorite with entrepreneurs, tourists and government officials from across the world.
Witnesses talked of around a dozen armed assailants, but the Malian military source reported the deaths of three “terrorists who were shot or blew themselves up,” adding that the total number of gunmen was not more than four.
One security source said as many as 10 gunmen had stormed the building, although the company that runs the hotel, Rezidor Group, said it understood that there were only two attackers.
Malian soldiers, police and special forces were at the scene soon after the attack began, along with members of the UN’s Minusma peacekeeping force in Mali and French troops deployed in west Africa under “Operation Barkhane.”
Several Russians were among the dead, ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said on Saturday, though she did not immediately specify how many.
A senior US State Department official confirmed a US citizen was among the victims, with another dozen Americans surviving the attack, while a Belgian regional assembly said one of its officials was also killed.
France’s Defense Minister Le Drian said he was not aware of any French nationals killed.
France has more than 1,000 troops in its former colony, a key battleground of the Barkhane counterterror mission spanning five countries in Africa’s restive Sahel region.
The Chinese state news agency Xinhua said three Chinese citizens had been killed in the attack.
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 also killed in an assault on a Bamako restaurant in March, the first of its kind in the city.
Minister of Internal Security Col. Salif Traoré said the gunmen burst through a hotel security barrier at 7 a.m., spraying the area with gunfire and shouting “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great” in Arabic.
“At first I thought it was a carjacking. Then they killed two guards in front of me and shot another man in the stomach and wounded him and I knew it was something more,” said Modi Coulibaly, a Malian legal expert who saw the assault start.
The gunmen went through the hotel room by room and floor by floor, one senior security source and a witness told Reuters.
Some people were freed by the attackers after showing they could recite verses from the Koran, while others managed to escape or were brought out by security forces.
One of the rescued hostages, celebrated Guinean singer Sekouba “Bambino” Diabate, said he had overheard two of the assailants speaking English as they searched an adjacent room.
The attack ended around 4 p.m. In an earlier report, a UN official said UN peacekeepers searching the hotel made a preliminary count of 27 bodies.
Due to French intervention
The attack is a sharp setback for former colonial power France, which has stationed 3,500 troops in northern Mali to try to restore stability after a rebellion in 2012 by ethnic Tuaregs that was later hijacked by jihadists linked to al-Qaida.
It also puts a spotlight on veteran militant leader Belmokhtar months after he was reported killed in an air strike.
Northern Mali was occupied by Islamist fighters, some with links to al-Qaida, for most of 2012. They were driven out by a French-led military operation, but violence has continued in Bamako and central Mali on the southern reaches of the Sahara.
Al-Mourabitoun has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks, including the assault on the hotel in Sevare in August.
‘Just the beginning’
In the wake of last week’s Paris attacks, an Islamic State militant in Syria told Reuters that the organization viewed France’s military intervention in Mali as another reason to attack France and French interests.
“This is just the beginning. We also haven’t forgotten what happened in Mali,” said the non-Syrian fighter, who was contacted online by Reuters.
“The bitterness from Mali, the arrogance of the French, will not be forgotten at all,” he said. Reports from AFP and AP
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