TRIPOLI (AFP) - Gunmen stormed a hotel in Tripoli popular with diplomats and officials Tuesday in an attack claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) extremist group, killing at least nine people including five foreigners before blowing themselves up.
After setting off a car bomb outside the luxury Corinthia Hotel in Libya's capital, three armed militants rushed inside and opened fire, Issam al-Naass, a spokesman for the security services, told AFP.
They made it to the 24th floor of the hotel, which is a major hub for diplomatic and government activity in Tripoli, before being surrounded by security forces and detonating explosive belts they were wearing, he said.
The dead included three security guards killed in the initial attack, five foreigners shot dead by the gunmen and a hostage who died when the attackers blew themselves up.
At least five people were also wounded during the assault, including two Filipina employees hurt by broken glass from the car bomb explosion, he said.
The nationalities of the foreigners killed and the person taken hostage were not immediately known, but Naass said two of the foreigners were women.
The hotel's 24th floor is normally used by Qatar's mission to Libya but no diplomats or officials were present during the assault, a security source said.
The head of Libya's self-declared government, Omar al-Hassi, was inside the hotel at the time of the attack but was evacuated safely, Naass said.
CLAIM OF ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT
In a statement on Twitter, the Tripoli branch of the Islamic State militant group claimed responsibility for the attack, the Site Intelligence Group said.
It said it was carrying out the attack in honour of Abu Anas al-Libi, an Al-Qaeda suspect who died in the United States earlier this month, days before facing a trial for bombing US embassies.
Several militant groups in Libya have pledged allegiance to ISIS, the Sunni extremist organisation that has seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq and declared an Islamic "caliphate".
Security forces loyal to Hassi's government, which is jostling for power with the internationally backed authority of Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani, surrounded the building during the assault.
The government in Tripoli said Tuesday's attack was an assassination attempt on Hassi it blamed on "enemies of the revolution and the war criminal Khalifa Haftar", a former general who last year spearheaded an operation against Islamist militias in second city Benghazi.
Ambulances, armoured vehicles and pick-up trucks with mounted artillery could be seen around the hotel during the assault.
Security forces prevented journalists from entering the hotel after the assault, saying work was needed inside to ensure the assailants had not left behind booby traps.
'BLOW' TO PEACE EFFORTS
EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini condemned the attack, calling it "another reprehensible act of terrorism which deals a blow to efforts to bring peace and stability to Libya."
She expressed "solidarity with the victims and their families" but made no mention of the nationalities of the dead.
"Such attacks should not be allowed to undermine the political process," Mogherini said in a statement.
A new round of UN-mediated peace talks between Libya's rival factions kicked off in Geneva on Monday as they seek to implement a roadmap on forming a unity government.
The North African nation has been wracked by conflict since the overthrow of dictator Moamer Kadhafi in a 2011 uprising, with rival governments and powerful militias battling for control of key cities and the country's oil riches.
The Islamist-backed Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn) militia alliance took control of Tripoli last summer, forcing Thani's government to flee to the remote east.
The luxurious Corinthia was long considered a haven in a city beset by unrest, with officials, diplomats and foreign businessmen crossing paths in its lavish reception area.
In October 2013, then prime minister Ali Zeidan was seized by gunmen from the hotel, where he was residing. He was released after several hours.
British Prime Minister David Cameron and then French president Nicolas Sarkozy held talks with top officials at the hotel in September 2011, when they where the first foreign leaders to visit Libya after Kadhafi's ouster.