Mali attack: more than 20 dead after terrorist raid on Bamako hotel
African jihadi group claims responsibility for attack in which 170 people were taken hostage, a week after Paris atrocity
A terror attack at a luxury hotel in Mali’s capital has left at least 21 people dead, including two militants, and highlighted the world’s growing vulnerability to extremist violence.
Less than a week after the Paris gun and suicide bomb attacks in which 130 people were killed, a group of heavily armed and seemingly well-trained gunmen stormed the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako.
They drove unchallenged into an inner compound, detonated grenades, opened fire at security guards and then took hostage about 170 people –among them diplomats, a celebrated Guinean singer and air crew from France and Turkey, as well as Indian and Chinese nationals. Three Chinese, one American and one Belgian were among the dead.
The president of Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Këita, speaking on national television late on Friday evening, declared a national state of emergency effective from midnight. As well as the 19 people and two Islamist militants killed, he said seven people had been wounded in the attack.
By late Friday night Malian special forces assisted by counterparts from the US and France had fought their way through the hotel floor by floor, reportedly killing at least two of the gunmen. A security source in Mali said the incident was over by the early evening. At least 30 people escaped during the siege. “The attackers no longer have hostages,” said a security ministry spokesman, Amadou Sanghou.
A military official said the gunmen shouted “Allahu Akbar” as they began the attack. Al-Mourabitoun, an African jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida, claimed responsibility in a message posted on Twitter.
A Chinese state-owned company said three of its senior executives were among the dead. China Railway Construction Corp identified the victims as Zhou Tianxiang, general manager for the corporation’s international group; Wang Xuanshang, a deputy general manager of the international group; and Chang Xuehui, general manager of the group’s west Africa division. China’s foreign affairs ministry confirmed the four deaths and said four other Chinese citizens were rescued.
The American victim was named as Anita Ashok Datar, an international aid agency worker from Maryland and former member of the Peace Corp. The US secretary of state, John Kerry, offered “deepest condolences to the families of the deceased and injured”.
Barack Obama, speaking in Malaysia during a regional summit, called it another example of “appalling” and “barbaric” jihadist violence against “innocent people who had everything to live for”.
“The terrorists began ruthlessly killing people and taking hostages [at the Bamako hotel]. On behalf of the American people I want to extend our deepest condolences to the people of Mali and the victims’ families, including at least one American,” said the US president.
John Kirby, a US state department spokesman, said about a dozen Americans including embassy staff had been among those rescued at the hotel. Across the city, the Pentagon said, a total of 22 military and civilian employees were accounted for after the attack.
Canada, meanwhile, said a clerk for the federal House of Commons and an employee of Quebec’s provincial legislature were both in the hotel at the time of the attacks. Both were safe afterwards.
The attack is a blow to President Keïta, who rushed back from a meeting of regional leaders in Chad. It also marks another reverse for François Hollande, whose country ruled Mali for 68 years until 1960. The French president gained significant political capital from his decision in 2013 to commit French troops to driving Islamist forces out of the north of Mali.
Hollande personally flew out to Timbuktu in February 2013, five days after French forces had routed the occupying jihadists, to hail the operation, saying it had “brought hope to the populations of northern Mali”.
His deployment of 3,700 French ground troops to assist the faltering efforts of Mali’s military had been seen as deeply risky, but in the end it took just 23 days for the French to retake most of a swath of territory held for nine months by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim).
Al-Mourabitoun – which claimed it carried out the hotel attack – is a more recent incarnation of militant Islamism. Based in northern Mali it is made up mostly of Tuaregs and Arabs and was formed about two years ago.
The attack on the Radisson, one of Bamako’s plushest hotels in a neighbourhood also home to government ministries and diplomats, appeared notably brutal, though it remained unclear how many people were killed by the attackers and who might have died when the hotel was stormed by troops.
State television showed footage of soldiers in camouflage fatigues wielding AK-47s in the lobby of the hotel. In the background a body lay under a brown blanket at the bottom of a flight of stairs.
The Radisson’s owner, the Rezidor Hotel Group, said 170 guests and staff were initially trapped. Some fled or escaped. Reports said the hostage-takers freed those who were able to quote passages from the Qur’an.
Among the released hostages was the Guinean singer Sékouba “Bambino” Diabaté, who told reporters he heard some of the attackers in the room next to him speaking to each other in English. “I heard them say in English: ‘Did you load it? Let’s go,’” he said. “I wasn’t able to see them because in these kinds of situations it’s hard.”
Air France said 12 of its crew who were staying in the hotel were safe. It cancelled its scheduled flights to and from Bamako on Friday. Turkish Airlines had about seven or eight staff staying at the hotel, most of whom were released before the building was retaken.
India’s foreign ministry said 20 Indian nationals were among the hostages, and they were all known to be alive. Algeria said seven of its nationals including diplomats had been trapped in the hotel during the siege.
The US Africa Command said forces stationed in Mali helped to secure the scene, and France’s national gendarme service said about 40 French special police forces based in Bamako took part in the assault on the hotel.
Ban Ki-moon condemned the “horrific” attack. His spokesman said the UN secretary general expressed “full support to the Malian authorities in their fight against terrorist and extremist groups”.
Northern Mali was occupied by rebel fighters, some with links to al-Qaida, for most of 2012. Although they were driven out by the French-led military operation, sporadic violence continues.
In the two and a half years since the French intervention, Mali and its international partners have been working to rebuild, with elections later in 2013 returning Keïta to power. The 70-year-old had previously been president from 1994 to 2000.
This summer, long-running peace talks in Algiers saw agreement between Mali’s government and Tuareg-led separatist rebels, which granted greater autonomy to northern regions and aimed to prevent a repeat of the 2012 uprising. But, as with Afghanistan or Iraq, the conflict has never fully gone away, with a variety of armed groups still operating in the north, including jihadi offshoots such as al-Mourabitoun, as well as various separatist organisations.
Recently, the jihadi problem has shown signs of creeping into central and southern Mali. The Radisson attack follows a nearly 24-hour siege and hostage-taking at another hotel in August in the central Malian town of Sevare, in which five UN workers were killed along with four soldiers and four attackers.
Five people, including a French citizen and a Belgian, were killed in an attack at a restaurant in Bamako in March, the first such incident in the capital. Both attacks were also claimed by al-Mourabitoun.