BAMAKO (AFP) - Police in the west African nation of Mali Sunday hunted for the killers of two Europeans and three Malians in an extremist attack on a nightclub, as a deadly assault on a UN barracks in the north heightened security concerns.
Officers in bulletproof vests patrolled the streets of the capital Bamako, where a masked gunman had burst into La Terrase, a popular venue among expats, spraying automatic gunfire and throwing grenades early Saturday.
Al-Murabitoun, an extremist group run by leading Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, has claimed responsibility for the attack, which left a Frenchman, a Belgian and three Malians dead.
It said in an audio recording carried by Mauritanian news agency Al-Akbar the operation was carried out "to avenge our prophet against the unbelieving West which has insulted and mocked him".
As the investigation got under way, the UN's MINUSMA peacekeeping force said one of its troops and two civilians had been killed by militants shelling its barracks in the northeastern rebel stronghold of Kidal.
MINUSMA sources said the civilians were members of the nomadic Arab Kunta tribe who died as stray rockets landed at their nearby encampment.
It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack, although the Kidal is the cradle of northern Mali's Tuareg separatist movement, which has launched several uprisings from the region since the 1960s.
Tuareg and Arab militias - loyalist and anti-government - have forged a peace agreement with the Malian government formulated earlier this month in Algiers, but the main rebel groups are yet to sign.
"MINUSMA expresses its indignation at the cowardice of the perpetrators of these attacks, which also killed innocent citizens," the force said in a statement.
"MINUSMA strongly condemns these heinous acts of terror whose sole purpose is to thwart all ongoing efforts to establish lasting peace in Mali." Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other jihadist groups also carry out operations in the area, including the 2013 murders of French journalists Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon.
NEED FOR VIGILANCE
In Bamako, vehicle checks were stepped on the three bridges over the Niger river as detectives focused on a black four-wheel drive apparently used by the nightclub attacker and an accomplice.
"We cannot say much more at this stage but there are clues about the vehicle used to transport the author of the crimes committed in Bamako," a police source told AFP.
MINUSMA, which has around 10,000 personnel in Mali, said it has made investigators and crimes scenes experts available to the authorities.
Police earlier announced they had arrested two Malians soon after but later said the pair were not involved, describing them as "not terrorists, but bandits".
The French victim has been named as 30-year-old Fabien Guyomard, a single man with no children who had lived in Bamako since 2007 and worked at ICMS Africa, a US company specialising in prestige construction.
Mali's prime minister and president visited eight people who were being treated in hospital overnight, including two Swiss nationals.
The Swiss were weapons experts advising the Malian government as part of international aid. They were in a critical but stable condition after being hit by bullets, the Swiss military said in Geneva.
"We must remain vigilant, the population must report people behaving suspiciously," Premier Modibo Keita told reporters.
In the moments after the attack an AFP correspondent witnessed the French victim being taken by stretcher out of the venue while the bodies of the police officer, a guard and the Belgian could be seen outside.
"They reportedly shouted 'death to whites' on entering the restaurant... It sounds like an attack against the presence of Europeans," a diplomatic source said.
French President Francois Hollande led the international outcry, condemning the "cowardly attack" and vowing to meet Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to offer Paris's help to its former colony.
Belgium, the United States and the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have all expressed their revulsion at the bloodshed.
Mali's vast desert north is riven by ethnic rivalries and an Islamist insurgency.
Jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda controlled an area of desert the size of Texas for more than nine months until a French-led military intervention in 2013 that partly drove them from the region.
But day-to-day life in the capital, a city of 1.8 million, has been largely unaffected by the northern conflict.
"It's the first attack of this type in Bamako," said Pierre Boilley, an analyst specialising in sub-Saharan Africa.