By Mathieu Bonkoungou and Nadoun Coulibaly
OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) — Security forces in Burkina Faso retook a hotel in the capital on Saturday a day after al Qaeda fighters seized it in an assault that killed at least 28 people from at least 18 countries and marked a major escalation of Islamist militancy in West Africa.
Until Friday’s attack, the landlocked nation, an ally of Western governments against jihadist groups in the arid reaches of the southern Sahara, had largely been spared the violence that has plagued its neighbors.
The assault follows a similar raid in November on a luxury hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako which killed 20 people, including citizens of Russia, China and the United States.
The Ouagadougou assault, claimed by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), marked an expansion of operations for Islamist militants who are stepping up their activities, echoing the growth of Islamic State in the Middle East.
President Roch Marc Christian Kabore said 28 people were killed in the 146-room Splendid Hotel, in the Cappuccino restaurant across the street and at a second nearby hotel, the Hotel Yibi, according to an initial death toll.
Speaking on state-run television, Kabore said 156 hostages had been freed by the security operation to retake the area, while around 50 civilians had been wounded. Four members of the security forces, including one French soldier were also wounded.
“Faced with these terrorists and their vile acts, we must mobilize to ensure the appropriate response to put them out of action,” Kabore said.
“We will emerge victorious from this war, which has been imposed upon our people and all other people of the world who want peace and freedom,” he said, adding that the nation would observe three days of mourning from Sunday.
Authorities had earlier said that victims of 18 different nationalities were killed in the attack which targeted an area popular with Westerners and French soldiers based in Burkina Faso.
Burkina officials gave no further details of the victims, but the French government announced on Saturday that two French citizens were among the dead. Paris pledged to send forensic experts to help investigate the attack, and a French court opened an investigation for murder and attempted murder.
Six Canadians died in the assault, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said. Switzerland lost two citizens and the Netherlands one, the two nations’ foreign ministries announced.
“THEY KEPT COMING BACK”
One Cappuccino survivor said diners at first mistook the gunfire and explosions which erupted at around 8:30 p.m. (2030 GMT) on Friday for firecrackers before two gunmen, dressed all in black and brandishing AK-47 assault rifles, burst in firing indiscriminately.
“We heard shots, grenades, detonations. It was echoing and extremely loud. It went on for a long time,” the survivor, a Slovenian social anthropologist told Reuters.
“They kept coming back and forth into Cappuccino. You’d think it was over, then they’d come back and shoot more people. They would come back and see if the white people were moving and then they would shoot them again,” she said.
Another survivor, a French architect called Ludovic who was at an outdoor bar near Cappuccino when the attacks started, said he saw three assailants singling out white victims before running into the Splendid Hotel.
Kabore said that three attackers were killed by security forces. One senior gendarme officer described them as an “Arab” and two “black Africans”. Some security sources had said a fourth attacker was also killed.
Separately, he said that two Australians had been kidnapped overnight in the north near the border with Mali, where they had lived since 1972 running a clinic.
Burkina Faso’s security ministry had earlier erroneously said they were from Austria. It was not clear if there was a link to the hotel attack.
The attackers torched cars and fired in the air to drive people back on Friday before entering the Splendid Hotel and taking hostages.
French and U.S. military personnel backed up Burkina Faso security forces when they launched their operation to reclaim the Splendid Hotel in the early hours of Saturday.
France normally has up to 200 special forces troops in the country as part of a regional anti-militant operation.
While many in Burkina Faso and across the region were shocked by the raid, there have been indications that the security situation in the majority Muslim but religiously diverse nation was deteriorating.
“There have been warning signs and if there is an element of surprise it is that this did not come earlier,” said Cynthia Ohayon, West Africa analyst at International Crisis Group.
Ohayon said it was no coincidence such incidents had only happened since Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore was driven from power. The longtime leader’s ouster likely ended a convenient relationship between Burkina Faso and militants that had, until then, protected the country, she said.
“Compaore had high connections with rebel and Islamist groups, and he helped to free hostages while some group members had houses in Ouagadougou,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Joe Bavier in Abidjan, Emma Farge and Makini Brice in Dakar, Shadia Nasralla in Vienna, and Leigh Thomas in Paris; Writing by Joe Bavier and Ed Cropley; Editing by Ralph Boulton)
Photo: A view shows vehicles on fire outside Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in this still image taken from a video January 15, 2016, during a siege by Islamist gunmen. REUTERS/Reuters TV