By Robyn Dixon, Alexandra Zavis and Soumaila Guindo, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
BAMAKO, Mali — Suspected Islamist gunmen stormed a luxury hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako early Friday, killing as many as 27 people and taking scores of hostages during a daylong siege.
Gunfire and explosions continued late into the afternoon, as security forces surrounded the Radisson Blu hotel and conducted a floor-by-floor rescue operation.
Television footage from inside the building showed Malian troops in full combat gear escorting terrified guests from the building, some of them injured. A body lay at the foot of a staircase, covered with a brown blanket.
By early evening, state-run Malian TV was reporting that 18 bodies had been found and no more captives were being held. But a United Nations official told The Associated Press that 27 bodies had been counted during an initial search, 12 in the basement and 15 on the second floor.
Three gunmen were killed during the operation, a Malian security official told reporters at the scene. It was not immediately clear if others remained holed up inside.
A local Islamist extremist group, Al Mourabitoun, said it carried out the attack in coordination with al-Qaida’s local affiliate. If true, it would appear to be another deadly assault on French interests after last week’s bombing and shooting rampage in Paris. France has taken a leading role in the fight against Islamist militants in Mali and other former colonies in West Africa.
The hotel, which is popular among foreign visitors, was seen as a prime target for extremists in Bamako but was lightly secured. There were 140 people, including 30 staff members, inside when the attack happened at about 7 a.m., according to the Malian presidency.
The gunmen drove up to the hotel at the same time as a car with diplomatic plates and opened fire on it, according to Malian officials. Two hotel guards were reported killed in the initial barrage.
The assailants then stormed into the lobby yelling “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great,” and went room-to-room looking for guests, local news reports said. Some who could recite Quranic verses were later freed, military officials told the AP.
At least six Americans were among those freed or who fled on their own, according to Col. Mark R. Cheadle, a spokesman for the United States Africa Command.
“A small group of U.S. forces have helped move civilians to secure locations as Malian forces work to clear the hotel of hostile gunmen,” Cheadle said.
American forces in Mali, a former French colony, routinely help the French military with intelligence gathering, aerial refueling and other missions.
One of the hotel’s residents, Guinean singer Sekouba Bambino Diabate, told Reuters he heard the attackers speaking English.
“I heard them say in English, ‘Did you load it?’ ‘Let’s go,’ ” Diabate said after he was freed.
Malian authorities dismissed initial reports that the attackers arrived at the hotel in a car with diplomatic plates, saying that they drove up to the hotel at the same time as a car with diplomatic plates and opened fire on it.
The assault came amid a deteriorating security situation in Mali, with Islamist militant groups from the north increasingly infiltrating the south and launching attacks.
Al Mourabitoun has claimed responsibility for previous attacks, including a March attack on a Bamako restaurant that killed two French nationals, a Belgian and two Malians.
The group is led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian militant blamed for a major assault on an Algerian natural gas facility in 2013 in which 39 foreign hostages were killed.
France intervened in Mali in early 2013 after al-Qaida-linked militias seized more than half the country in 2012. The groups included al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Justice and Unity in West Africa , or MUJAO, which imposed a harsh form of Islamic law across the region.
France saw the conquests as a direct threat, with extremist groups gaining a stronghold on France’s back doorstep, within easy striking distance of Europe.
The French intervention force, with 4,500 troops, swiftly drove militant groups out of Mali’s major cities. France scaled back in August 2014, merging the Mali operation with one operating across five countries in the region.
However, Operation Barkhane, consisting of 3,000 forces, is spread too thinly to contain the increasing militant attacks, experts say.
A 10,000-strong United Nations force is also stationed in Mali but has not been focusing on the terrorist threat. Mali’s own army remains poorly equipped and unable to secure the country’s vast desert territory without outside help.
One of the five major groups active in the country, MUJAO, reportedly declared allegiance to Islamic State in May, several months after Nigerian militant group Boko Haram joined with the group.
French officials have expressed concern that other groups could do the same following reports that an Islamic State envoy traveled to northern Mali recently for meetings with leaders of the local al-Qaida affiliate, Ansar Dine, and others.
French President Francois Hollande pledged to help and sent an elite paramilitary unit to Bamako.
In recent months, Malian militant groups have switched focus from attacking military targets in the north to threatening civilian targets in central and southern Mali.
The country has seen several deadly attacks this year. In August, gunmen attacked a hotel in the town of Sevare, killing 13 people. There also have been attacks on security posts in Bamako and at a U.N. residence.
September saw an attack near Mopti that killed two police officers and two civilians.
Another militant group, the Guardians of Jihad, recently issued death threats against foreign journalists in Mali, particularly from France, warning them to leave the country.
(Times staff writers Dixon reported from Johannesburg and Zavis from Los Angeles. Special correspondent Guindo reported from Bamako. Staff writer W.J. Hennigan in Washington contributed to this report.)
(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
A Malian police officer stands guard in front of the Radisson hotel in Bamako, Mali, November 20, 2015. REUTERS/Joe Penney