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BAMAKO, Nov 20, (Agencies): At least 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, allied to al- Qaeda and based in the desert north of the former French colony, claimed responsibility for the attack.
The former French colony has been battling Islamist rebels for years. US special operations troops helped rescue at least six Americans from the luxury hotel in the Malian capital Bamako on Friday after suspected Islamist gunmen stormed the site, the US military said. “A small group of US forces have helped move civilians to a secure location,” US Africa Command’s Colonel Mark Cheadle told reporters in Washington, adding that “at least six US citizens” had been rescued. A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said about 25 US military personnel were in Bamako at the time of the incident, which comes exactly a week after the deadly jihadist rampage in Paris that left at least 130 dead.
The official declined to comment on whether additional US troops were being sent to the region. Pentagon spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Michelle Baldanza said the US troops were from Special Operations Command Forward-North and they had been working with “West Africa personnel.” More than seven hours after the initial assault, a security source declared the drama over, along with the deaths of two militants. But the security ministry said gunmen continued to hold out against special forces on the top floors of the sevenstorey building.
“The attackers no longer have hostages. They are dug in in the upper floors. They are alone with the Malian special forces who are trying to dislodge them,” spokesman Amadou Sangho said. A UN official said UN peacekeepers searching the hotel had made a preliminary count of 27 bodies. 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 UN official told Reuters on condition of anonymity. He added that the UN troops were still helping Malian authorities search the hotel. A man who worked for a Belgian regional parliament was among the dead, the assembly said. Minister of Internal Security Colonel Salif Traoré said the gunmen had burst through a security barrier at 7 am (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. Bursts of gunfire were heard as the assailants went through the hotel room by room and floor by floor, one senior security source and a witness told Reuters. Some people were freed by the attackers after showing they could recite verses from the Holy Quran, while others managed to escape or were brought out by security forces.
One of the rescued hostages, celebrated Guinean singer Sékouba “Bambino” Diabate, said he had overheard two of the assailants speaking English as they searched an adjacent room. “We heard shots coming from the reception area. I didn’t dare go out of my room because it felt like this wasn’t just simple pistols — these were shots from military weapons,” Diabate told Reuters by phone. “The attackers went into the room next to mine. I stayed still, hidden under the bed, not making a noise,” he said. “I heard them say in English ‘Did you load it?’, ‘Let’s go’.” The raid on the hotel, which lies just west of the city centre near government ministries and diplomatic offices, came a week after Islamic State militants killed 130 people in Paris, raising fears that French nationals were being specifically targeted.