Toronto Star

At least 20 killed in siege at luxury hotel

Gunmen shouting ‘God is great’ in Arabic take 170 captive in seven-hour ordeal

- BABA AHMED

BAMAKO, MALI— Heavily armed Islamic extremists seized dozens of hostages Friday at a Radisson hotel, but Malian troops, backed by U.S. and French special forces, swarmed in to retake the building and free many of the terrified captives. At least 20 people were killed in the more than seven-hour siege, officials said.

An extremist group led by former Al Qaeda commander Moktar Belmoktar claimed responsibi­lity for the attack in the former French colony, and many in France saw it as a new assault on their country’s interests a week after the Paris attacks.

While French President François Hollande did not link the violence at the Radisson Blu Hotel with last week’s bloodshed in Paris, he declared that France would stand by the West African country.

“Once again, terrorists want to make their barbaric presence felt everywhere, where they can kill, where they can massacre. So we should once again show our solidarity with our ally, Mali,” he said.

Gunfire continued throughout the day at the hotel, which is popular with airline crews and other foreigners doing business in the capital of Bamako, but the shooting had stopped after dark.

Officials would not confirm that the entire complex had been secured by nightfall, although the only activity was firefighte­rs carrying bodies to waiting ambulances. A police officer displayed photos of two dead gunmen, their bodies riddled with bullets, although it was not immediatel­y clear if they were the only attackers.

The siege began when assailants shouting “God is great!” in Arabic burst into the complex and opened fire on the hotel guards, said army Cmdr. Modibo Nama Traore. An employee who identified himself as Tamba Diarra said, by phone during the attack, that the militants used grenades.

About 170 guests and employees were initially taken hostage, but some apparently escaped or hid in the sprawling, cream-and-pink hotel, which has 190 rooms and a spa, outdoor pool and ballroom. They included visitors from Canada, France, Belgium, Germany, China, India, Ivory Coast and Turkey.

“It was more like a real terrorist attack,” said UN mission spokesman Olivier Salgado. “The intention was clearly to kill, not to necessaril­y have people being hostage.”

At least one guest reported the attackers instructed him to recite vers- es from the Qur’an as proof of his Muslim faith before he was allowed to leave, Traore said.

As people ran for their lives along a dirt road, troops in full combat gear pointed the way to safety, sometimes escorting them with a protective arm around the shoulder. Local TV showed heavily armed troops in what appeared to be a lobby.

Malian special forces went “floor by floor” to free hostages, Traore said.

U.S. special forces assisted, said Col. Mark Cheadle of the U.S. army’s Africa Command. At least six Americans were evacuated, he said.

Aunit of French soldiers was sent to Bamako in support of Malian security forces, the French Defence Ministry said. About 40 special police forces also played a supporting role, France’s national gendarme service said.

The UN mission sent security reinforcem­ents and medical aid to the scene, said UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq. A few UN staff were in the hotel but they got out safely, he added.

Reflecting the chaos surroundin­g the siege, various death tolls were reported during the day. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said 19 people died — 18 in the hotel and one Malian soldier killed in the fighting.

The attack was perceived by many in France, particular­ly in the government, as a new attack on its interests.

An extremist group that two years ago split from Al Qaeda’s North Africa branch and led by Moktar Belmoktar claimed responsibi­lity in a recorded statement carried by Al Jazeera. The group said it wanted fighters freed from Mali’s prisons and a halt on attacks against northern Malians.

Northern Mali remains insecure and militant attacks have extended farther south this year, including Bamako. In March, masked gunmen shot up a Bamako restaurant popular with foreigners, killing five people.

France has 3,500 troops operating in Mali and four other countries in the Sahel region as part of a fivenation counterter­rorism operation.

 ?? JOE PENNEY PHOTOS/REUTERS ?? French special forces leave the Radisson Blu in Bamako on Friday after they and U.S. troops assisted the Malian army in retaking the hotel. An extremist group led by a former Al Qaeda commander claimed responsibi­lity for the attack.
JOE PENNEY PHOTOS/REUTERS French special forces leave the Radisson Blu in Bamako on Friday after they and U.S. troops assisted the Malian army in retaking the hotel. An extremist group led by a former Al Qaeda commander claimed responsibi­lity for the attack.
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 ??  ?? The Radisson Blu, left, is popular with airline crews and foreign business people. Above, blood pools in a hotel staircase on Friday.
The Radisson Blu, left, is popular with airline crews and foreign business people. Above, blood pools in a hotel staircase on Friday.

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