Mali announces 10-day state of emergency in wake of hotel attack
Security forces hunt suspects after assault by Islamist militants on Radisson Blu in capital
Malian security forces are hunting “more than three” suspects after a brazen assault on the Radisson Blu hotel in the capital that killed 20 people, most of them guests.
Islamist militants launched the attack on a top hotel before Malian commandos stormed the building and rescued 170 people, many of them foreigners.
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita announced the death toll and said seven people were wounded in the attack, which has been claimed by jihadist group Al Mourabitoun and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Friday’s assault on the Radisson Blu hotel comes a week after deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.
The Mali attack was the latest in a series of deadly raids this year on high-profile targets in the country, which has battled Islamist rebels based in its desert north for years.
“Tonight the death toll is heavy,” Mr Keita said on state television, declaring a 10-day state of emergency and three days of national mourning.
The president, who cut a short visit to a regional summit in Chad, said two militants also died.
Six employees of Russian regional airline Volga-Dnepr were killed in the attack, Russia’s foreign ministry said on Saturday, confirming earlier media reports.
“Among the many foreigners captured as hostages there were citizens of Russia - employees of the airline Volga-Dnepr,” ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement.
“Among those killed - six citizens of our country, who together with 13 citizens of other states were shot by the militants in the restaurant literally in the first moments of the terrorist attack on the hotel”.
Ms Zakharova said six other Russians had been rescued.
Earlier on Saturday, Russian president Vladimir Putin said global cooperation was need to confront terrorism in the wake of the attack.
“Once again, this barbarity only stiffens our resolve to meet this challenge,” he said. “We will stand with the people of Mali as they work to rid their country of terrorists and strengthen their democracy. With allies and partners, the United States will be relentless.”
The attack is a sharp setback for former colonial power France, which has stationed 3,500 troops in northern Mali to try to restore stability after a rebellion in 2012 by ethnic Tuaregs that was later hijacked by jihadists linked to al Qaeda.
It also puts a spotlight on veteran militant leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whose group Al Mourabitoun staged the attack months after he was reported killed in an air strike.
Minister of Internal Security Colonel Salif Traor said the gunmen burst through a hotel security barrier at 7am , spraying the area with gunfire and shouting “Allahu Akbar”, or “God is great” in Arabic.
“At first I thought it was a carjacking. Then they killed two guards in front of me and shot another man in the stomach and wounded him and I knew it was something more,” said Modi Coulibaly, a Malian legal expert who saw the assault start.
The attack ended around 4pm. In an earlier report, a UN official said UN peacekeepers searching the hotel made a preliminary count of 27 bodies.
As troops stormed the hotel, state television showed them brandishing AK47s in the lobby. A body lay under a brown blanket at the bottom of a flight of stairs.
The US State Department said one American was killed. The White House said it was working to locate all Americans in Mali, and it offered to help with an investigation and urged its citizens to limit their movements around Bamako.
A man who worked for a Belgian regional parliament was also among the dead, the assembly said. France’s Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he was not aware of any French nationals killed.
Bursts of gunfire were heard as the militants 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 Koran, while others managed to escape or were brought out by security forces.
Northern Mali was occupied by Islamist fighters, some with links to al Qaeda, for most of 2012. They were driven out by a French-led military operation, but violence has continued in Bamako and central Mali on the southern reaches of the Sahara.
One security source said as many as 10 gunmen had stormed the building, although the company that runs the hotel, Rezidor Group, said it understood there were only two attackers.
Al Mourabitoun has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks, including an assault on a hotel in the town of Sevare, 600 km northeast of Bamako, in August in which 17 people including five UN staff were killed.
One of its leaders is Belmokhtar, blamed for a large-scale assault on an Algerian gas field in 2013 and a major figure in insurgencies across North Africa.
In the wake of last week’s Paris attacks, an Islamic State militant in Syria told Reuters the organisation viewed France’s military intervention in Mali as another reason to attack France and French interests.
“This is just the beginning. We also haven’t forgotten what happened in Mali,” said the non-Syrian fighter, who was contacted online by Reuters. “The bitterness from Mali, the arrogance of the French, will not be forgotten at all.”
Reuters and PA