Mali hotel siege leaves at least 19 dead

Al-Mourabitoun, an Al-Qaeda affiliate based in northern Mali, claims responsibility for attack at luxury hotel

Gunmen affiliated with an Al-Qaeda offshoot stormed a luxury hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako on Friday, after which government forces swarmed in to free scores of hostages and wrest control of the hotel. The ordeal lasted more than seven hours and claimed at least 19 lives.

The attack on the Radisson Blu — a five-star hotel popular with foreigners that was hosting several international diplomatic and military personnel at the time of the attack — underscored the country’s political instability and the beleaguered state of ongoing peace talks in the divided country

Al-Mourabitoun, an Al-Qaeda-linked group based in northern Mali and led by veteran Al-Qaeda commander Moktar Belmoktar, claimed responsibility for the attack. The group said it wanted the government to free fighters from prison and to stop its attacks on northern Malians.

Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta told reporters 19 people and two attackers were killed in the assault. More than 150 hostages were believed to have been held at one point during the siege. Mali's Security Minister Salif Traore said at midafternoon Friday that no more captives were being held.

A State Department official speaking on background confirmed to Al Jazeera that at least one American citizen had been killed in the attack.

More than seven hours after the initial assault, a security source declared the drama over, along with the deaths of two militants. But the Malian security ministry said gunmen continued to hold out against special forces on the top floors of the seven-floor 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," ministry spokesman Amadou Sangho said.

Mali, a onetime French colony, has been battling an array of separatist and insurgent groups for years, and France has continued to have a strong presence in the country.

Coming only a week after the attack in Paris that killed 130 people, many in France viewed the siege as another attack on French interests, though the link was not necessarily explicit, analysts said.

"Certainly France has been in the lead in dealing with these groups in Mali and in the region as a whole, but it’s not like this was a hotel where there were more French diplomats than any other Western government,” said Chris Chivvis from the Rand Corporation, a think tank. “So it’s an attack on the West, far more than it is specifically an attack on France."

But he added that “it does make things difficult for France in a moment where France may be looking to shift some of its military resources from Mali over to the fight against Daesh in Iraq and Syria," using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). 

Following a military coup in Mali in 2012, an insurgent group took control of the northern part of the country. That prompted a French-led military intervention in early 2013, which forced the fighters out of northern towns and cities, though the north remains insecure and attackers have extended farther south this year.

On Friday, both French and U.N. soldiers assisted Malian forces in wresting control of the hotel from the gunmen.

Some U.S. military personnel in Mali were also helping move civilians to secure locations, a U.S. military spokesperson said, but U.S. personnel were said to play no direct combat role.

Malian army commander Modibo Nama Traore said at least one guest earlier reported that the attackers instructed him to recite verses from the Quran before he was allowed to leave the hotel. 

While there were conflicting reports about the number of attackers involved, Traore said as many as 10 gunmen stormed the hotel before firing on guards and taking hostages. Reports said the attackers drove up in vehicles bearing diplomatic license plates, thereby gaining easy access to the hotel. A staffer at the hotel who gave his name as Tamba Diarra said over the phone that the attackers used grenades in the assault.

Some people were freed later in the morning, and others managed to escape with the help of security forces.

Ronald St John, a Libya expert, said that Friday's attack could be seen in light a global contest for prestige by armed groups like Al-Qaeda who have been somewhat eclipsed by the battlefield successes and effective propaganda of ISIL.

"Attacking foreigners generates enormous publicity and public relations for Al-Qaeda or ISIL," he said. "So they’re attacking against soft targets as a means to generate publicity and demonstrate their own strength, and this all seems sometimes difficult to understand, but it does help their recruiting effort enormously."

"The fact that [Friday's attack] occurred marks the willingness of and desire of Al-Qaeda affiliated groups to stay on the radar screen in Mali," said Susanna Wing, associate professor of political science at Haverford College.

French President François Hollande said Friday that his country stands ready to help Mali with all available means in the wake of the hotel attack.

In March, masked gunmen shot up a restaurant in Bamako that is popular with foreigners, killing five people.

About 1,000 French troops remain in Mali. The Netherlands also has troops working with the U.N. mission in Mali. According to the Dutch defense ministry, some 450 Dutch military personnel are taking part in the mission along with four Apache and three Chinook helicopters. Most of the Dutch force is based in Gao, but there are a few officers at the U.N. mission headquarters in Bamako.

Al Jazeera and wire services. Azure Gilman and Phil Victor contributed to this report. 

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