DAKAR, Senegal – Gunmen stormed a Radisson Blu hotel Friday in Bamako, the capital of the West African nation of Mali, seizing scores of hostages and leaving bodies strewn across parts of the building.
A senior U.N. official said that as many as 27 people had been killed, with bodies found in the basement and on the second floor, according to a preliminary assessment of the attack.
An unknown number of gunmen, perhaps four or five, took “about 100 hostages” at the beginning of the siege, said Gen. Didier Dacko of the Malian army. He said soldiers had sealed the perimeter and were now “inside looking for the terrorists.”
Several dozen hostages, many of them crying streamed out of the hotel after hiding in their rooms, said Amadou Sidibé, a local reporter at the scene.
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By afternoon, two assailants had been killed and the operation to retake the hotel was still underway, according to Col. Salif Traoré, Mali’s minister of interior security. The remaining assailants were holed up in a corner of the hotel, but he said there were no more hostages being held.
According to the operators of the hotel, at least 125 guests and 13 employees were inside the hotel Friday after the siege began.
A U.S. Defense official said 12 to 15 Americans were believed to be at the hotel when the gunmen first arrived. Six U.S. citizens were recovered safely from the hotel, he said. The status of the others is not clear.
U.S. Special Operations forces “are currently assisting hostage recovery efforts,” said Col. Mark Cheadle, a spokesman with U.S. Africa Command. “U.S. forces have helped move civilians to secure locations, as Malian forces work to clear the hotel of hostile gunmen.”
The siege in Mali, a former French colony, came only a week after terrorists with assault rifles and suicide vests killed 129 people in attacks across Paris.
It is still unclear who is responsible for the attack in Mali, but the country has long struggled with insurrection and Islamist extremism.
Northern Mali fell under the control of rebels and Islamist militants in 2012. A French-led offensive ousted them in 2013, but remnants of the militant groups have staged a number of attacks on U.N. peacekeepers and Malian forces. Hundreds of French soldiers remain in the country.
The Radisson Blu hotel is a popular place for foreigners to stay in Bamako, a city with a population approaching 2 million, and French citizens were among those taken hostage.
About 20 Indian citizens were in the hotel at the time of the attack but were evacuated safely, the Indian ambassador to Mali said.
Germany’s Foreign Ministry said that two Germans were among the hostages who had been released from the hotel. Four Belgians were registered in the hotel, according to a Foreign Ministry spokesman in that country. At least one of them, a 39-year-old Belgian working for the Wallonia-Brussels regional parliament, died during the attack. He was in Mali for three days for a meeting.
A diplomat at the Chinese embassy in Bamako said that eight Chinese business people had been trapped in the hotel as well. Embassy officials at the scene were in touch with some of the Chinese hostages by WeChat, a Chinese messaging service, the diplomat said. Later, China’s national broadcaster, CCTV, reported that four of the Chinese citizens had been freed.
Kassim Traoré, a Malian journalist who was in a building about 160 feet from the Radisson, said the attackers had told hostages to recite a declaration of Muslim faith as a way separating Muslims from non-Muslims.
Those who could recite the declaration, the Shahada, were allowed to leave the hotel. The al-Shabab, an al-Qaida affiliate in East Africa, used a similar approach in the attack at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in 2013.
The security forces were moving through the hotel, floor by floor, freeing hostages as they went, Traoré added.
Some of the people who fled the hotel were not wearing any clothes as they were taken to a police station.
“We were just evacuated from the hotel by security forces; I know that there are a lot of people inside right now,” one hostage who made it to safety told France24 television. “I saw bodies in the lobby. What is happening right now is really horrible.”
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“I was hidden in my room barely a couple minutes, a couple seconds ago, and someone shouted, telling us to get out,” the hostage said. “My door was smashed open, the security forces arrived.”
Another French hostage, who did not want to be identified, told a friend in Bamako that a group of people were trapped on the roof of the hotel, along with the body of one person who had died in the attack. The hostage told the friend that the French Consulate had told hostages by text message to stay put and wait for a military assault.
Kamissoko Lassine, the chief pastry chef of the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, said that two armed men arrived at the hotel between 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m.
“They were driving a vehicle with diplomatic plates,” he said. “You know how easy that is at the hotel? The guards just lifted the barrier.”
”They opened fire and wounded the guard at the front,” said Lassine, who said he was able to slip out a back door and make it home safely. “They took the hotel hostage and moved people into a big hall.”
A member of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Mali, who asked not to be identified, said there were many French people in the hotel, including Air France staff members, along with a delegation for the International Organization of French Speakers. Air France later said in a statement that 12 members of its crew had been at the hotel and were freed.
Five Turkish Airlines crew members, including pilots and flight attendants, have also been freed, while two remained inside the hotel, a Turkish government official said.
Mali has been crippled by instability since January, 2012, when rebels and al-Qaida-linked militants – armed with the remnants of late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s arsenal – began advancing through the country’s vast desert in the north and capturing towns.
A military coup, stirred in part by anger over the government’s handling of the insurrection, overthrew Mali’s elected government in March 2012. Amid the chaos, Islamist rebels managed to consolidate their hold on the northern part of the country, imposing a harsh version of Islamic law.
In January of 2013, the Islamist forces began advancing south from their northern stronghold, heading in the direction of Mali’s capital. France sent in troops to stop them. A brief military campaign halted the Islamist advance, recaptured towns like Timbuktu that had been under the militants’ control, and chased the remaining Islamist fighters back into the desert.
But in a twist, other militants linked to al-Qaida stormed a vast gas production facility in the desert of neighboring Algeria, taking dozens of expatriate workers hostage. Some 38 were killed during the siege of the gas plant.
With hundreds of French troops still present in Mali and the country highly reliant on donors, elections in the summer of 2013 restored a democratic government. But its hold on the north remains weak.
There are frequent attacks by Islamist fighters, particularly on U.N. troops, in the northern provinces. A shaky peace deal signed in June has not stopped the attacks, and in August five U.N. workers were killed in an assault on a hotel in central Mali. Five months before, militants killed five at a restaurant in Bamako.
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The Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, the operator of the Radisson Blu Hotel Bamako, said it was in contact with local authorities, and the U.S. Embassy said it had issued a warning to staff members and U.S. citizens to shelter in place.
France has about 800 troops stationed in Mali as part of a larger 3,500-member regional force in West Africa. Only about a dozen or so of those troops are in Bamako itself, however.
There was no formal claim of responsibility for the siege, but supporters of the Islamic State were posting on Twitter in celebration of the attacks under the hashtags #IslamicState, #ParisIsBurning and #Mali–Is–Burning.
Serge Daniel reported from Bamako, Mali; Dionne Searcey from Dakar, Senegal; and Adam Nossiter from Paris. Reporting was contributed by Rukmini Callimachi, Lilia Blaise and Nabih Bulos from Paris; Saskia de Rothschild in Abidjan, Ivory Coast; and Jane Perlez from Beijing.