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GRAND BASSAM, Ivory Coast, March 13, (Agencies): Fourteen civilians and two soldiers were killed in the Ivory Coast beach resort of Grand Bassam on Sunday when gunmen stormed the popular weekend retreat and opened fire, President Alassane Ouattara said. Ivory Coast’s security forces “neutralised six terrorists” on Sunday after a deadly attack on a beach resort town that left around a dozen people dead, Interior Minister Hamed Bakayoko said. “Three hotels in Grand Bassam were attacked this Sunday by armed men. Security and defence forces intervened immediately and were able to neutralise six terrorists. The cleanup operation is under way,” he said on state television.”
Earlier, an AFP photographer saw seven bodies on the beach and another in the Etoile du Sud (Southern Star) hotel, one of the establishments that came under attack in the country’s former French colonial capital. A witness told AFP they heard one of the attackers shouting “Allahu akbar” — Arabic for “God is greatest”.
The assailants, who were “heavily armed and wearing balaclavas, fired at guests at the L’Etoile du Sud, a large hotel which was full of expats in the current heatwave,” another witness told AFP. It was not immediately clear who was behind the shooting in the resort, which lies on the Gulf of Guinea around 40 kms (25 miles) east of the commercial hub Abidjan. “We were on the beach, we heard the gunshots and we saw people fleeing — we understood this was an attack,” witness Braman Kinda told AFP, showing photos of seven bodies lying on the beach including that of at least one woman.
Kinda said four attackers had “roamed the beach firing shots”. Abbas El-Roz, a Lebanese national who was staying at the Etoile du Sud, said he one of the attackers had a Kalashnikov assault rifle and a grenade belt. At least one assailant was killed, several witnesses reported. Another witness called Kouamena Kakou Bertin said three others fled on foot via a nearby road. “Search operations are continuing, the hotel has been secured,” a police source told AFP. A crowd of several hundred people gathered at the entrance to Grand-Bassam’s French quarter at the edge of the old town, where a dozen ambulances were on standby. An AFP journalist saw around a dozen people, including an injured Western woman, being evacuated in a military truck. Military vehicles carrying heavy machine guns also headed to the scene, along with armed traditional hunters known as Dozo.
The army was tightly controlling access to the area. Attacks in recent months on luxury hotels in the capitals of neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso have left dozens of people dead, leaving West African nations scrambling to boost security in the face of a growing jihadist threat.
Analysts have voiced fears that Islamist attacks could spread to countries such as Ivory Coast and Senegal, and the recentlyconcluded Flintlock exercise, which groups African, US and European troops, focused on the need to counter jihadism. In Burkina Faso and Mali, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for deadly attacks on hotels popular with foreigners in November 2015 and in January this year.
The Mali attack in November left 20 people dead, while gunmen killed 30 people in the assault on a top hotel in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou in January. Ivory Coast is the world’s top cocoa producer. Its former president Laurent Gbagbo is currently on trial at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity over deadly violence that followed the disputed 2010 election. More than 3,000 people were killed in five months of unrest after the presidential polls, when Gbagbo refused to concede defeat to Alassane Ouattara.
Ouattara was re-elected for a second presidential term late last year, hoping to turn the page on the violence and revive Ivory Coast’s conflict-scarred economy. Home to some 80,000 people, Grand- Bassam holds UNESCO World Heritage status thanks to its elegant colonial-era facades. The town has several hotels frequented by expatriates. UNESCO describes Grand-Bassam as a late 19th and early 20th century colonial town that “bears witness to the complex social relations between Europeans and Africans, and to the subsequent independence movement”.