Security forces hunt possible surviving Burkina hotel attackers

A soldier standing guard in front of the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on Jan 17, 2016.
A soldier standing guard in front of the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on Jan 17, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

Ouagadougou (AFP) - Security forces were hunting Sunday (Jan 17) for any possible surviving gunmen from an attack on a top hotel in Burkina Faso that left at least 29 people dead and showed the expanding reach of regional militants in west Africa.

The drama saw Burkinabe troops, backed by French special forces, battle militants who stormed the four-star Splendid Hotel, which is popular with foreigners and United Nations staff.

At least 13 foreigners are among the dead, according to a government toll.

Burkina Faso has declared three days of national mourning following the onslaught, which echoed another Al-Qaeda attack last year on a luxury hotel in neighbouring Mali where 20 people were killed, mostly foreigners.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed the latest attack on behalf of an affiliate, saying the gunmen were from the Al-Murabitoun group of notorious one-eyed Algerian extremist Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

It is still not clear how many attackers took part in the onslaught - the bodies of three have been identified, but some witnesses reported seeing more.

Burkina Faso's Interior Minister Simon Compaore said search security forces were carrying out careful searches, while at the scene of the attack a security cordon was widened on Sunday.

Investigators wearing white protective gloves were seen in the streets around the Splendid and the Cappuccino cafe, which was also attacked.

"People are afraid. Anyone who's not afraid isn't normal - this is guys with guns," said Souleymane Ouedraogo, who lives near the scene of the violence.

Until recently Burkina Faso had largely escaped the tide of Islamist violence spreading in the restive Sahel region and the hotel assault will heighten fears that militant groups are casting their net wider in search of targets in west Africa.

President Roch Marc Christian Kabore, who took office just last month, said Saturday that the country was in shock.

"For the first time in its history, our country has fallen victim to a series of barbaric terrorist attacks," he said, adding that the people of Burkina would nevertheless "emerge victorious".

The attack began around 7:45 pm local time on Friday (Jan 15) when an unknown number of attackers stormed the 147-room Splendid Hotel in the heart of Ouagadougou.

The hotel and surrounding area became a battleground as Burkina Faso troops, backed by French forces based in the city under a regional counterterrorism initiative, launched an attempt to retake the hotel around 2:00 am.

Among those killed were six Canadians, two French nationals, two Swiss, an American, a Portuguese and a Dutch person, according to the prosecutor's office.

Interior minister Compaore said the bodies of three "very young" militants had been identified, all of them men.

Several guests managed to escape from the hotel through side entrances, including labour minister Clement Sawadogo, who emerged unscathed.

"It was horrible... there was blood everywhere. They were firing at people at close range," Yannick Sawadogo, one of those who escaped, told AFP.

Highlighting the fragile security situation in Burkina Faso, an elderly Australian couple were kidnapped on Friday in the northern Baraboule region, near the border with Niger and Mali.

Malian militant group Ansar Dine told AFP the couple were being held by militants from the Al-Qaeda-linked "Emirate of the Sahara".

The pair had been running a surgical clinic in the north of the country since 1972, and no reason has been given for their kidnapping, a statement from their family said.

The hotel attack was the first of its kind in Ouagadougou and came as people were tentatively enjoying a return to stability after November elections which ended a shaky transitional period since veteran leader Blaise Compaore's 2014 ouster, including a failed coup.

Al-Murabitoun had already begun to move into the impoverished country of around 17 million. In April, it claimed the abduction of the Romanian security chief of a mine in the country's north.