BAMAKO (AFP) - Five people including two Europeans and a Malian police officer were killed in an assault on a Bamako nightclub Saturday, in the first suspected attack targeting Westerners in a city braced for extremist violence since 2012.
At least one masked gunman entered the club in an area of the Malian capital popular with expatriates around 1:00 am (9 am Singpapore time) and sprayed the venue with automatic gunfire and threw grenades, witnesses said.
Mauritanian news website Al-Akhbar said it had received a video from the armed Islamist group al-Mourabitoun that claimed responsibility for the attack in reprisal for the December killing by French troops of Ahmed al Tilemsi, one of the group's senior commanders.
It was not possible to immediately verify the video but Nouakchott-based Al-Akhbar is frequently used by al Qaeda-linked Islamists operating in the Sahara and Sahel band to publish statements.
Customers of La Terrasse, in Bamako's lively Hippodrome district, described how the masked assailant arrived in a black four-wheel drive and headed to the upstairs restaurant and bar area to begin shooting.
As he left he lobbed two grenades at a security patrol and one went off, killing a policeman, witnesses said.
"The killer came here because there were foreigners. He wanted to kill foreigners, that's for sure," a waiter at the venue said.
"This is a terrorist attack, although we're waiting for clarification. Provisionally, there are four dead - one French national, a Belgian and two Malians," a policeman said.
The United Nations MINUSMA peacekeeping force later clarified that a third Malian had died.
Hospital sources said eight people were wounded, including three Swiss nationals, one of them a woman.
An AFP correspondent at the scene in the aftermath witnessed the French victim being stretchered out of the venue.
In the moments after the attack, the body of a police officer and a guard of a private home could be seen in the street outside, while a little further on the body of the Belgian national was also visible.
Dozens of police officers secured the area but witnesses to the attack were initially refusing to testify, fearing reprisals.
A police source said two suspects had been arrested and were being interrogated, without revealing their identities or nationalities.
French President Francois Hollande denounced "with the greatest force the cowardly attack", according to a statement from the presidency which added that he would meet Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to offer Paris's help to the former French colony.
"My thoughts are with the victims and their families," said Didier Reynders, the foreign minister of Belgium, which has confirmed one of its nationals was among the dead.
EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini said one of the victims worked with the European Union in Mali, where the 28-nation bloc runs a mission to assist police and national guard forces.
The gunman killed the Belgian and two of the Malians in the street before entering the club, according to a diplomatic source.
"They reportedly shouted 'Death to whites' on entering the restaurant... It sounds like an attack against the presence of Europeans. Then they apparently targeted the French national," the source said.
Zakaria Maiga, who said he was a friend of the French victim, described how they been dancing upstairs when the gunshots rand out.
Maiga said there was immediate panic and he threw himself to the ground, before escaping the club and running to safety.
"Things happened too fast. I did not see the shooter," he said.
Mali's vast desert north is riven by ethnic rivalries and an Islamist insurgency.
Extremists 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.
The west African nation is also struggling with a militant Tuareg movement that has launched four uprisings since 1962 to fight the army over the territory they claim as their homeland and call Azawad.
But day-to-day life in the capital has been largely unaffected by the northern conflict, and bloodshed blamed on terrorism is rare in the city of 1.8 million.
"It's the first attack of this type in Bamako," said Pierre Boilley, an analyst specialising in sub-Saharan Africa.
But he added that it was not clear who the gunman's target was, pointing out that locals were killed alongside the Europeans.
More than a dozen French citizens have been taken captive in Africa in recent years, but deaths of Westerners at the hands of extremists in Mali remain an uncommon, if chilling, reminder of the country's instability.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the 2013 murders of two French journalists shot dead in Mali's desert town of Kidal - Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon.
Saturday's attack came less than 24 hours after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged Mali's Tuareg rebel groups to sign a peace deal agreed nearly a week ago in Algeria.
The Malian government signed the agreement last weekend, along with some northern armed groups, but the main Tuareg rebel alliance, known as the Coordination, asked for more time.