BAMAKO : Islamic extremists armed with guns and grenades stormed the luxury Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital Friday morning, and security forces swarmed in to free guests floor by floor. As evening fell, officials said no more hostages were being held and that 18 bodies had been found.
Special operations forces from America and France assisted Malian troops in the swift response.
An extremist group led by former al-Qaida commander Moktar Belmoktar claimed responsibility for the hotel siege in the former French colony, which many in France saw as a new assault on their country’s interests a week after the Paris attacks.
As people ran for their lives near the luxury hotel along a dirt road, the soldiers in full combat gear pointed the way to safety, sometimes escorting civilians with a protective arm around their shoulders.
Within hours, local TV images showed heavily armed troops in what appeared to be a lobby area, apparently led by a white officer. Malian state TV reported that 80 people have been freed.
An extremist group that two years ago split from al-Qaida’s North Africa branch and led by Moktar Belmoktar claimed responsibility for the attack, in a recorded statement carried by Al-Jazeera. The group said it wanted fighters freed from Mali’s prisons and for attacks against northern Malians to stop.
The jihadist group, known as the Mourabitounes, was formed in 2013 after Belmoktar left al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and fused with a Malian militant group. The statement issued Friday said the Mourabitounes had attacked in coordination with the “Sahara Emirate” affiliated with al-Qaida.
Gunfire continued into the late afternoon. Malian army commander Modibo Nama Traore said operations were continuing and it was not yet confirmed that all hostages are freed.
Malian special forces were freeing hostages “floor by floor,” Traore told The Associated Press. Still, Rezidor Hotel, the Brussels-based group that operates the hotel, said hours after the assault began that 125 guests and 13 employees remained in the hotel.
U.S. special forces troops assisted Malian forces in hostage rescue efforts, said Col. Mark Cheadle of the U.S. Army’s Africa Command. President Barack Obama said he’s monitoring the situation. At least six Americans were evacuated from the hotel but it was unclear how many more may be inside, Cheadle said.
France’s national gendarme service said about 40 French special police forces were playing a support role. The French defense ministry said French soldiers have arrived in Bamako to support Malian forces.
The guests at the sprawling, cream-and-pink colored luxury hotel, which has 190 rooms and features a spa, outdoor pool and ballroom, came from many countries. But the attack was perceived by many in France, particularly in the government, as a new attack on French interests.
The French military operation in Mali in 2013 against Islamic extremists who were holding the northern half of the country was the first of several foreign interventions that President Francois Hollande has launched as president. Those interventions have prompted increased threats against France and French interests from Islamic extremist groups from al-Qaida’s North African arm to the Islamic State group.