Mali in mourning after at least 21 killed in hotel attack

Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali (in the background), where scores of people were killed and about 170 taken as hostages by jihadist gunmen … yesterday. PHOTO: AFP

Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali (in the background), where scores of people were killed and about 170 taken as hostages by jihadist gunmen … yesterday. PHOTO: AFP

Mali on Saturday began three days of national mourning and declared a state of emergency after a nine-hour siege by jihadist gunmen at a top hotel in the capital left 21 people dead.

The assault, claimed by Al-Qaeda affiliate the Al-Murabitoun group led by notorious one-eyed Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, ended after Malian and international troops stormed the luxury Radisson Blu hotel in 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.

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.

US President Barack Obama condemned the “appalling” attack, adding that “this barbarity only stiffens our resolve to meet this challenge” of extremist violence.

Mali has been torn apart by unrest since the north fell under the control of jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda in 2012.

The Islamists were largely ousted by a French-led military operation launched the following year, but large swathes of Mali remain lawless.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also condemned Friday’s “horrific terrorist attack,” suggesting the violence was aimed at destroying peace efforts in the country.

– Nine-hour seige –
The assault began around 0700 GMT on Friday, when gunmen pulled up at the hotel and starting 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.

Special forces — including Malian, French and two US soldiers who were also in the area — staged a dramatic floor-by-floor rescue, ending the siege after about nine hours.

In an audio recording broadcast by Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television, Belmokhtar’s group claimed responsibility.

“We the Murabitoun, with the participation of our brothers from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, claim the hostage-taking operation at the Radisson hotel,” a man’s voice said.

French Defence 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.

– Attackers ‘spoke English’ –
The palatial 190-room Radisson, regarded as one of west Africa’s best hotels, is a favourite 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.

Guinean singer Sekouba Bambino Diabate, who was among the survivors, told AFP the gunmen spoke English among themselves.

“They were firing inside the hotel, in the corridors,” Diabate said.

A paramedic said three security guards had been wounded while an AFP correspondent saw a police officer, who had been shot, being evacuated by security forces.

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 spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Saturday, though she did not immediately specify how many.

China’s President Xi Jinping “strongly condemned” the attack which left three Chinese nationals dead.

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 has more than 1,000 troops in its former colony, a key battleground of the Barkhane counter-terror mission spanning five countries in Africa’s restive Sahel region.

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.

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