BAMAKO (Mali) • Malian security forces stormed a luxury hotel where Islamist gunmen took 170 people hostage yesterday morning in Bamako, the capital of the West African nation of Mali, just a week after the deadly attacks in Paris.
France has been helping its former colony battle Islamist militants allied to Al-Qaeda in northern Mali for the past few years.
Within hours, the 190-room Radisson Blu was surrounded by more than 120 French soldiers, United Nations peacekeepers and Malian troops. The roads were blocked off by tanks and armoured cars.
Dozens of people were reported to have escaped or been freed, but at least three were dead.
Security forces later said they recovered 18 bodies. A security source said the gunmen had dug in on the seventh floor of the hotel as special forces advanced on them. US special forces were also helping to evacuate hostages, a Pentagon official said.
State television showed footage of troops in camouflage fatigues wielding AK-47s in the hotel lobby. In the background, a body lay under a brown blanket at the bottom of a flight of stairs.
Minister of Internal Security Salif Traoré said three people had been killed and two wounded by the gunmen, who burst through the hotel, spraying the area with gunfire and shouting "Allahu Akbar", or "God is great" in Arabic.
After keeping silent for hours, Al-Mourabitoun, a group based in northern Mali and made up mostly of Tuareg rebels and Arabs, claimed responsibility.
Hotel pastry chef Kamissoko Lassine said two men arrived at the hotel between 7am and 7.30am.
"They were driving a vehicle with diplomatic plates... The guards just lifted the barrier," he said.
"They opened fire and wounded the guard at the front," said Mr Lassine, who escaped by a back door.
One of the rescued hostages, celebrated Guinean singer Sekouba "Bambino" Diabate, said he overheard two of the assailants speaking in English .
Occasional bursts of gunfire were heard as the attackers went through the seven-storey building room-by-room and floor-by-floor, according to one senior security source and an eyewitness.
Some people were freed by the attackers after showing they could recite verses from the Quran.
Twelve Air France flight crew who were in the hotel were extracted safely, the national carrier said. A Turkish official said three of six Turkish Airlines staff had managed to escape. The Xinhua news agency said there were several Chinese tourists in the hotel.
"We were just evacuated from the hotel by security forces, I know that there are a lot of people inside right now," one hostage told France24 television. "I saw bodies in the lobby. What is happening right now is really horrible."
Yesterday's siege comes a week after militants loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) killed 130 people in a series of shootings and explosions in Paris. Malian and French forces have been fighting groups linked to Al-Qaeda and ISIS in northern Mali since 2012.
As the drama in Bamako was unfolding, European Union ministers agreed at an emergency meeting in Brussels to tighten border controls after the Paris attacks orchestrated by a Belgian militant who had travelled between Syria and France.
France said a special forces team had arrived in Bamako to join in the operations as President Francois Hollande said his country was available to help resolve the hostage situation.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NEW YORK TIMES, BLOOMBERG