MALIA – Muslim militants shouting in Islamic “Allahu akbar” attacked the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako on Friday, spraying bullets on tables of people who were gathered for breakfast, before Malian commandos stormed the building and freed 170 hostages, many of them foreigners.
The attackers shouted “Allahu akbar” as they opened fire Friday morning, employee Tamba Couye said.
They shot at “anything that moved” as terrified patrons dashed for cover all over the hotel, he said.
By the time Malian and U.N. security forces rushed in and ended the siege hours later, bodies were scattered across the floors of the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako.
At least 19 people were killed in the attack, said Olivier Salgado, a spokesman for the U.N. mission in the nation.
In addition, two attackers died, he said, but it’s unclear whether security forces killed them or they blew themselves up.
The United Nations said two or three gunmen attacked the hotel.
UN Peace talks
The hotel was hosting delegations attending peace talks. The former French colony has been battling Islamist extremists with the help of U.N. and French forces.
About 140 guests and 30 employees were there when the attack began.
The hotel in an upscale neighborhood in Bamako is a hub for international guests, and is a 15-minute drive from the main international airport.
Mali has declared a 10-day state of emergency and three days of national mourning in which flags will be flown at half-staff.
Islamist militant group Al Mourabitoun claimed it carried out the attack together with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, according to the Al Akhbar news agency.
It said the attack was retaliation for government aggression in northern Mali, Al Akhbar reported. The group also demanded the release of prisoners in France.
Algerian jihadist and leader of the group, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, may be behind the attack, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told France’s TF1. But he said France was not sure.
Belmokhtar was targeted in a U.S. airstrike in Libya in June. While Libyan officials said he had been killed, their U.S. counterparts never confirmed his death publicly.
Mongi Hamdi, head of the U.N. mission in Mali, said the diplomats’ meetings may be a likely reason why the hotel was targeted.
“I think this attack has been perpetrated by negative forces, terrorists, who do not want to see peace in Mali,” Hamdi said.
Speaking in Malaysia, U.S. President Barack Obama said swift action of Malian and other security forces saved lives. He said the victims were “innocent people who had everything to live for.”
Mali’s struggle for stability
Mali has struggled with instability and Islamist extremists for years.
After a March 2012 military coup plunged the country into chaos, Islamist extremists with links to al Qaeda carved out a large portion of northern Mali for themselves.
At the Malian government’s request, France sent thousands of troops in 2013 to help push out the militants. The U.N. also established a peacekeeping mission to keep the government secure enough to continue a peace process.
A day before the attack, French President Francois Hollande praised his troops for fighting Islamists in the former French colony. It also came a week after ISIS targeted France with shootings and suicide bombings, killing 130 people.
In August, 12 people were killed in a hostage situation at a hotel in central Mali.