An African jihadist group affiliated with al Qaeda has claimed responsibility on Friday for an attack on a luxury hotel packed with foreigners in the Malian capital Bamako. Al-Mourabitoun, a group based in northern Mali and made up mostly of Tuaregs and Arabs, posted a message on Twitter saying it was behind the attack on the Radisson Blu hotel, where around 130 people were reported to be trapped or held hostage.
The claim could not immediately be verified. Al-Mourabitoun, formed around two years ago and based in the Sahara Desert, is headed by former al Qaeda fighter Mokhtar Belmokhtar. It has claimed responsibility for the death of five people last March in an attack on a restaurant in Bamako; a suicide attack on a group of U.N. peace-keepers in northern Mali in April in which at least three people died; and an attack on a hotel in Sevare in central Mali in August in which 17 people were killed.
Malian special forces have entered the Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali’s capital, Bamako, to end a siege by gunmen who had been holding 170 people hostage. The gunmen stormed the US-owned hotel, which is popular with foreign businesses and airline crews, shooting and shouting “God is great!” in Arabic.
Mali’s Interior Minister Salif Traore said 30 hostages had been freed so far. Three people had been shot dead and two soldiers were wounded, but their lives were not in danger, he said.
Air France says 12 of its crew have been successfully freed in the rescue operation; Turkish Airlines says five of its crew are out, but two remain in the hotel. Among the other guests are 20 Indian nationals and reports of up to 10 Chinese citizens.
The UN peacekeeping force said it was supporting the operation as Malian special forces freed hostages “floor by floor”.
“We have sealed all the exit points of the hotel, so be assured none of the hostage takers will be able to escape,” the interior minister told reporters outside the Radisson Blu. Earlier, Mali’s state TV reported that 80 hostages had been freed.
An Ivorian guest said she and six other people were escorted out by security forces as the gunmen rushed “toward the fifth or sixth floor”.
“I don’t know where to go. I’m tired and in a state of shock,” Monique Kouame Affoue Ekonde told the AP news agency.
Earlier, a security source told Reuters that some hostages who were able to recite verses of the Koran were being freed.
I spoke to a gardener at the hotel who was sweeping the yard when the gunmen arrived.
“They were in car with a diplomatic licence plate. They were masked. At the gate of the hotel, the guard stopped them and they start firing. We fled,” he said.
Another eyewitness said that it was difficult to say how many attackers there were, he said it could have between five and 13.
“They injured three security guards who were at the gate of the hotel,” he said.
Popular Guinean singer Sekouba Bambino was among some guests who has managed to get out of the hotel. It is not clear how he escaped.
He said: “I woke up with the sounds of gunshots and for me it sounded like small bandits. After 20 or 30 minutes, I realised these are not just petty criminals.”
Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has cut short a trip to a regional summit in Chad. His French counterpart Francois Hollande said: “We should yet again stand firm and show our solidarity with a friendly country, Mali.” A unit of 50 paramilitary police is already en route to Bamako, French officials said.
The US Rezidor Hotel Group, which owns the Radisson Blu, said in a statement earlier that “two persons have locked in 140 guests and 30 employees”. The UN force in Mali took over responsibility for security in the country from French and African troops in July 2013, after the main towns in the north had been recaptured from the Islamist militants.