Gunmen attack Mali hotel, at least one dead
Malian troops were surrounding the Byblos hotel in the strategic desert town of Sevare after what may have been an attempt to kidnap Western guests, the military sources said.
At least five foreigners — three South Africans, a French national and a Ukrainian — were registered at the hotel, the sources said.
“The Fama (Malian armed forces) have sealed off the area… and the operation is still going on,” one military source told AFP from Gao, the main town in northern Mali.
A body could be seen lying sprawled in front of the hotel, the source added.
It is the third assault in just a week in the west African country, which is still struggling to restore stability despite a landmark peace deal agreed in June to end years of unrest, ethnic divisions and jihadist attacks particularly in the north.
One resident said she had been woken early Friday by the sound of gunfire and was hiding out at her home with her family.
“The shooting is still going on but I don’t know who is shooting,” she told AFP.
Initial reports said the assault targeted another hotel, the Debo, but the military source in Gao said it was the Byblos that had come under attack.
– Delicate operation –
“The army is trying to find (the attackers) and remove them,” a Mali army official told AFP from the capital Bamako, adding however that the operation was delicate because of the presence of guests in the hotel.
“We still don’t know if the terrorists have been arrested. According to our information, they tried to kidnap Westerners but they didn’t succeed,” said another local resident contacted by phone by AFP.
A number of foreigners have been kidnapped by Islamist militants in Mali in recent years and at least two are still being held hostage by Al-Qaeda’s front group in the region.
Friday’s assault also came just days after 11 Malian soldiers were killed on Monday in an attack on their camp in the Timbuktu region claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM).
Another two were killed in an ambush on Saturday near the border with Mauritania.
AQIM was among several jihadist groups that took control of Mali’s north in 2012 before being ousted by a French-led military operation launched in January 2013.
– Spreading jihadist attacks –
Sevare lies near the main regional town of Mopti, a key staging post to the vast north of Mali that lies more than 640 kilometres (400 miles) northeast of Bamako.
Jihadist attacks have long been concentrated in Mali’s north, but began spreading at the beginning of the year to the centre of the country, and in June to the south near the borders with Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.
The United Nations maintains a mission in Mali with a force of more than 10,200 while former colonial master France has 1,350 soldiers on the ground.
Among those taken hostage in Mali, South African Stephen Malcolm McGowan and Swede Johan Gustafson were abducted in Timbuktu in November 2011 and have been held since by AQIM.
A Dutch hostage kidnapped with the pair was rescued in April in a raid by French special forces.
In June, AQIM released footage of a jihadist with an English accent parading the two hostages.
French hostage Serge Lazarevic was freed in December last year after three years in the hands of Islamist militants in Mali.
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