Three Chinese, one American and one Belgian were among more than 20 dead when 13 suspected Islamist gunmen attacked Radisson Blu Hotel in the Malian capital Bamako early Friday, shot people at random and took 170 people hostage.
Malian special forces later stormed the building, and after a long stand-off which extended into the wee hours of Saturday, shot dead two gunmen and rescued more than 70 hostages still trapped there before chasing away other gunmen from the upper floors of the hotel.
Al-Qaeda and its affiliate al-Murabitoun said they carried out the attack. A hunt is under way to arrest three suspects involved in the attack.
Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Këita announced a 10-day state of emergency from midnight Friday and three days of national mourning.
Speaking after an emergency Cabinet meeting held late on Friday, Këita said 21 people died in the siege.
Earlier, UN peacekeepers said they counted 12 bodies in the basement of the hotel and another 15 on the second floor.
Geoffrey Dieudonne, an official with the parliament of Belgium’s French-speaking community, was among the dead.
Among those held hostage were diplomats, a celebrated Guinean singer, air crew from France and Turkey, as well as Indian and Chinese nationals.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, condemned the attack.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei too condemned the raid and sent deep condolences to the relatives of the three victims who were in Mali on a business trip.
Wang Yi, political counselor of the Chinese embassy in Mali, said the four rescued Chinese are in stable condition.
At 7am, 13 heavily armed men burst into the Radsson firing and shouting “Allahu Akbar“, or “God is great” in Arabic, and began working their way through the building, room by room and floor by floor.
Some of the hostages escaped on their own while a few others who could recite verses from the Quran were freed, one security source said.
Twelve Air France flight crew were in the hotel, but all were extracted safely, the French national carrier said.
A Turkish official said three of six Turkish Airlines staff who had been in the hotel managed to flee.
The raid on the hotel, which lies just west of the city centre near government ministries and diplomatic offices, comes a week after Islamic State militants killed 129 people in Paris.
A paramedic said three security guards had been wounded, including one who was in a critical condition after being shot. AFP’s correspondent saw a police officer, who had also been shot, being evacuated by security forces.
Two freed female hostages — a Turkish aviation worker and an Ivorian woman who was at the hotel for an economic conference — told AFP they saw the body of a fair-skinned man lying on the floor of the hotel.
Masked men came in car
A gardener at the hotel told BBC that he was sweeping the yard around 7 am when a gang of masked gunmen arrived in a car with a diplomatic license plate. When the three guards stopped them at the hotel gate, they started firing.
The head of security confirmed three security guards posted at the gate of the hotel were injured in the assault.
A hotel employee who gave his name as Tamba Diarra said over the phone that the attackers used grenades in the assault.
Businessman Garba Konate said about 10 gunmen arrived early in the morning and shot at the guards in front of the Radisson.
Another witness said he helped a wounded security official to safety.
“I started hearing gun shots coming from the hotel,” said Ibrahim, 28, who works at a cultural center 40 meters away. “Soon after, I saw one of the guards running out, bleeding … he told me the shooters were so quick that he doesn’t even know how many came in.”
A French consultant, who stays regularly at the hotel, described it as “an obvious target for terrorists”.
“The Radisson is at a crossroads, one of the roads was blocked. Security is provided by private guards. They passed a metal detector under cars,” said the consultant, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“I noticed that when they knew you, they didn’t (use the metal detector) any more.”
The US Embassy tweeted that it was “aware of an ongoing active shooter operation at the Radisson Hotel,” and instructed its citizens to stay indoors.
An Islamist group had claimed responsibility for the death of five people last March in an attack on a restaurant in Bamako.
Islamist groups have continued to wage attacks in Mali despite a June peace deal between former Tuareg rebels in the country’s north and rival pro-government armed groups.
In mid-2012 the north fell under the control of jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda. They supplanted Tuareg rebels and imposed a brutal interpretation of sharia law on the region, with Bamako reeling from a military coup.
The Islamists were largely ousted from towns by an ongoing French-led military operation launched in January 2013, but they have since launched sporadic attacks on security forces from desert hideouts.
Despite the peace deal, large swathes of Mali remain beyond the control of government and foreign forces.
In a recording authenticated by Malian authorities this week, a jihadist leader in Mali denounced the peace deal and called for further attacks against France, which is helping national forces fight extremists.