BAMAKO, Nov 21 (Reuters) – Around 27 people were reported dead on Friday after Malian commandos stormed a hotel seized by Islamist gunmen to rescue 170 people, many of them foreigners, trapped in the building.
The jihadist group Al Mourabitoun, which is based in the desert north of the former French colony, claimed responsibility for the attack and said it worked with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Mali has been battling Islamist rebels for years.
A security source said the siege was over by around 4 p.m. local time (1630 GMT) and two militants were dead.
A United Nations official said U.N. peacekeepers searching the hotel had made a preliminary count of 27 bodies. The government held an emergency cabinet meeting on Friday night and was expected to give an official death toll later.
“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.
State television showed troops brandishing AK47s in the lobby of the Radisson Blu, one of the capital Bamako’s smartest hotels and beloved of foreigners. A body lay under a brown blanket at the bottom of a flight of stairs.
Peacekeepers saw 12 dead bodies in the basement of the hotel and another 15 on the second floor, the U.N. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity. He added that the U.N. troops were still helping Malian authorities search the hotel.
The U.S. State Department said one American had been killed. Earlier, the White House said it was working to locate all Americans in Mali, and it offered to help with an investigation and urged its citizens to limit their movements around Bamako.
A man who worked for a Belgian regional parliament was also among the dead, the assembly said. France’s Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he was not aware of any French nationals killed.
Minister of Internal Security Colonel Salif Traoré said the gunmen burst through a security barrier at 7 a.m. (0700 GMT), spraying the area with gunfire and shouting “Allahu Akbar”, or “God is great” in Arabic.
The attacks are a slap in the face for France, which has stationed 3,500 troops in northern Mali to try to restore stability after a 2012 Tuareg rebellion which was later hijacked by al Qaeda-linked jihadists.
They also put a spotlight back on veteran militant leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar months after he was reported killed.