Updated 12:03pm ET
Gunmen stormed a hotel on Friday (Nov. 20) in the Malian capital of Bamako and held 140 guests and 30 staff members hostage. Malian security forces, assisted by US special forces based in the region, subsequently stormed the hotel and freed 76 people, leaving dozens unaccounted for.
The casualty count is still not clear; AFP reported that 18 bodies were found at the scene, including two gunmen, while the UN said 27 bodies were found, Reuters reported.
Al-Mourabitoun, a jihadist group based in northern Mali and is affiliated with Al-Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for the Mali attack, Reuters reports. The group posted its message on Twitter but the claim has yet to be verified.
Earlier, Malian special forces had managed to free 50 people trapped inside the hotel. ”Our special forces have freed hostages and 30 others were able to escape on their own,” Salif Traore, Mali’s security minister, told AFP.
The death toll is likely to rise, with reports of many bodies in the hotel. AFP reported that French special forces have also arrived on the scene.
“The police and security forces helped us get out the building. There are still lots of people in there. I also saw bodies in the lobby, It was absolutely horrible,” a freed hostage told freelance journalist François Rihouay (translation by the Guardian).
Northern Mali was taken over by Islamist militants in 2012, and although they were ousted by a French-led multinational force, the groups have since staged a number of attacks on civilians, UN peacekeepers, and the Malian military.
Before the Malian counter-assault, the attackers released some hostages who were able to recite Quranic verses, according to Reuters.
Earlier, The Rezidor Hotel Group, which operates the Radisson Blu Hotel in the western part of the city, sent this statement to Quartz:
[The company] is aware of the hostage-taking that is ongoing at the property today, 20th November 2015. As per our information two persons have locked in 140 guests and 30 employees. Our safety & security teams and our corporate team are in constant contact with the local authorities in order offer any support possible to re-instate safety and security at the hotel. At this point we do not have further information and continue to closely monitor the situation.
The situation started early on Friday, a security source told Reuters. “Very early in the morning there was gunfire. Apparently it’s an attempt to take hostages,” the security source told the news agency. “The police are there and are sealing off the area.”
The Radisson Hotel, which has 190 rooms, is popular with tourists. There was reportedly a UN function being held at the hotel when reports say gunmen entered the hotel with diplomatic cars and took over the seventh floor and were firing down the corridor. Witnesses say 10 gunmen armed with AK-47s w involved in the attack.
“They were in car with a diplomatic license plate. They were masked. At the gate of the hotel, the guard stopped them and they start firing. We fled,” a guard at the hotel told the BBC.
The local US embassy confirmed the incident on its Facebook page and warned American citizens to “shelter in place” and “contact their families.”
There are also reports that 10 Chinese citizens are trapped inside the hotel, the Chinese embassy in Mali told a Chinese paper (link in Chinese) a reporter. Four of the Chinese guests have been freed, state-run broadcaster CCTV reported. Twenty Indian guests at the hotel were also safe, according to a foreign minister spokesman:
This is the second hostage situation at a hotel in Mali in recent months. In August, 13 people died after gunmen took over a hotel in Sevare, a town in central Mali. Among the dead were five UN workers.
French president François Hollande has issued a statement of support to Mali, a former French colony:
I want to assure all Malians of our solidarity and support for them and I urge all French nationals who are in the affected area to be vigilant at this time.
In October, a jihadist leader in Mali linked with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), reportedly called for further attacks against France, which is helping the government fight extremists in the country.