BAMAKO • Mali yesterday began three days of national mourning and declared a state of emergency after a nine-hour siege by Islamist gunmen at a top hotel in the capital left at least 19 people dead.
Friday's assault, claimed by an Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Al-Murabitoun group led by notorious one- eyed Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, ended after Malian and international troops stormed the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako.
Investigators in Mali yesterday were hunting at least three people suspected of links to the assault.
The attack came a week after devastating strikes in Paris that killed 130 people claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which also said it had downed a Russian passenger jet in Egypt weeks before.
The Malian government declared a 10-day state of emergency and called three days of mourning for the victims, who included several Russians, three Chinese, an American and a Belgian.
"Terror will not win" and "long live Mali, terrorism shall not pass", President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said in a televised address.
Mali said more than 100 people were taken hostage in the raid, while at least three "terrorists" were killed or blew themselves up.
World leaders have condemned the attack, with United States President Barack Obama calling it "appalling", and saying "this barbarity only stiffens our resolve to meet this challenge" of extremist violence.
Chinese President Xi Jinping also condemned the "cruel and savage" attack, and vowed to boost security work "outside China's borders" against terrorism.
Mali has been torn apart by unrest since the north fell under the control of Al-Qaeda-linked militants in 2012. The militants were largely ousted by a French-led military operation the next year, but large parts of Mali remain lawless.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said the "horrific terrorist attack" was aimed at destroying peace efforts in the country.
The assault began with gunmen pulling up at the hotel and shooting their way inside, taking guests and staff hostage.
Malian television broadcast chaotic scenes from inside the building as police and security personnel ushered guests to safety.
Special forces - including Malian, French and two US soldiers who were in the area - staged a dramatic floor-by-floor rescue.
In an audio recording broadcast by Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television, Belmokhtar's group claimed responsibility. "We, the Murabitoun, with the participation of our brothers from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, claim the hostage-taking operation at the Radisson hotel," a man's voice said.
French Defence Minister Jean- Yves Le Drian said Belmokhtar, one of the world's most-wanted men, was indeed likely the brains behind the assault.
The militant is said to be the leader of an attack on a gas plant in Algeria in 2013, in which 38 mostly Western hostages were killed.
The palatial 190-room Radisson, regarded as one of west Africa's best hotels, is a favourite with entrepreneurs, tourists and government officials from across the world.
Witnesses talked of around a dozen armed assailants, but a Malian source reported three "terrorists who were shot or blew themselves up", adding that the total number of gunmen was not more than four.
Guinean singer Sekouba Bambino Diabate, who was among the survivors, said the gunmen spoke English among themselves.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS