Friday, 20 November 2015

Gunmen storm luxury hotel in Mali in hostage standoff

 Gunmen stormed a luxury hotel in Mali’s capital on Friday with 170 guests and staff, killing at least three people and taking hostages in a city that serves as a logistics hub for French and American forces helping fight Islamist insurgents.There was no immediate claim of responsibility, and the identities or affiliation of the assailants were not clear. But Mali has faced repeated attacks from militants linked to al-Qaeda and other factions.
Security forces conducted room-by-room searches amid sporadic gunfire. U.S. military units and French commandos were dispatched to the scene.At least 80 captives managed to escape or were released by the attackers hours after the standoff begun, state TV reported in Mali. Some were reportedly freed after being able to recite the Muslim profession of faith.But the hotel operators said more than 135 people — including 125 guests — were believed held. The reason for the discrepancy in the counts was not immediately clear.Among those who reached safety were five members of a six-member Turkish Airlines crew, the company said. Air France also said its 12-member crew at the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako was safe.Authorities drew no direct links to last week’s attacks in Paris. But Mali — home to the famous ancient city of Timbuktu — has been at the center of a French-backed effort to drive back Islamist rebels that once had control over large portions of the vast nation, which stretches from tropical West Africa to desert regions bordering Algeria.Malian army commander Modibo Nama Traore said gunmen stormed the hotel shouting “Allahu Akbar” — “God is great” in Arabic — and then fired on the guards and began taking hostages, the Associated Press reported.At least three people were killed, the Malian military said.Radical Islamists with ties to al-Qaeda have been active in Mali for years, occupying the northern part of the country for much of 2012. Even after they were forced out by a French-led military operation, militants have waged occasional attacks, including earlier this year on a hotel in central Mali and a military base in the south.The Islamic State, meanwhile, has sought to expands it presence across North Africa and beyond though alliances with militant factions. But the Islamic State does not have significant footholds in West Africa.France’s Gendarmerie Nationale, the national police, said a team of special forces was en route to Mali. Members of the U.S. Special Operations Command for North and West Africa also were sent to the scene of the attack.“We do have some people who are assisting in the hostage recovery efforts at the hotel,” said Chuck Prichard, a spokesman for the U.S. military’s Africa command. “They helped move some of the civilians to secure locations as the Malian forces worked to remove the hostile forces from the hotel.”U.S. forces joined anti-insurgent operations in Mali several years ago. About 25 U.S. military personnel were in Bamako when the hotel was attacked, and fewer than a half-dozen were helping escort guests who had left the hotel, according to two U.S. military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.Foreigners are often targeted in Mali. Yet militants had never before seized a target as prominent as the Radisson Blu, where foreign businessmen and diplomats are known to stay and dine.Earlier this month — before the string of attacks in Paris — the leader of Ansar Dine, one of Mali’s main Islamist groups, released a statement encouraging attacks that would “push away the aggression of the French Crusader assailant” in the former French colony.A contingent of French troops is stationed in Mali, and President François Hollande on Thursday praised the campaign against the Islamists insurgents."France is leading this war with its armed forced, its soldiers, its courage. It must carry out this war with its allies, its partners giving us all the means available, as we did in Mali, as we are going to continue in Iraq, as we will continue in Syria," he said.The Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, which runs the 190-room hotel, said there was 30 staff and 140 guests at the time of the attack, including U.N. envoys involved in Mali peace efforts.The U.N. mission in Mali said it was “currently supporting Malian authorities and providing a security reinforcement while also deploying medical facilities in the area.” Over the past three years, the U.N. mission in Mali has been the deadliest in the world, with at least 53 members killed.The Reuters news agency reported that the gunmen had freed some hostages, including those able to recite verses from the Koran, citing a security source.One of the rescued hostages, popular Guinean singer Sékouba “Bambino” Diabate, told reporters that he hid under his bed and heard two assailants speaking in English as they searched an adjacent room.“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.’”Extremist violence has hit Mali repeatedly.In March, attackers reportedly shouting “Allahu Akbar” fired on a popular bar in Bamako, according to the BBC. Three Malian civilians were killed, along with a Belgian security officer working for the European Union and a French national.Two months ago, more than a dozen people — including five U.N. contractors — were killed in a 24-hour hostage siege at a hotel in Sevare in central Mali. Responsibility for that attack was claimed by Algerian jihadi leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar. The infamous one-eyed militant had also orchestrated the bloody seizure of an Algerian gas facility in 2013, where at least 100 workers were held hostage and dozens were killed.Murphy and Kaplan reported from Washington. Craig Whitlock in Washington and Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.

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