BAMAKO, Mali — Islamic extremists armed with guns and grenades stormed the luxury Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital Friday morning, and security forces swarmed in to free guests floor by floor. As evening fell, officials said no more hostages were being held and that 18 bodies had been found.
Special operations forces from America and France assisted Malian troops in the swift response.
An extremist group led by former al-Qaida commander Moktar Belmoktar claimed responsibility for the hotel siege in the former French colony, which many in France saw as a new assault on their country’s interests a week after the Paris attacks.
As people ran for their lives near the luxury hotel along a dirt road, the soldiers in full combat gear pointed the way to safety, sometimes escorting civilians with a protective arm around their shoulders.
Within hours, local TV images showed heavily armed troops in what appeared to be a lobby area, apparently led by a white officer. Malian state TV reported that 80 people have been freed.
An extremist group that two years ago split from al-Qaida’s North Africa branch and led by Moktar Belmoktar claimed responsibility for the attack, in a recorded statement carried by Al-Jazeera. The group said it wanted fighters freed from Mali’s prisons and for attacks against northern Malians to stop.
The jihadist group, known as the Mourabitounes, was formed in 2013 after Belmoktar left al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and fused with a Malian militant group. The statement issued Friday said the Mourabitounes had attacked in coordination with the “Sahara Emirate” affiliated with al-Qaida.
Gunfire continued into the late afternoon. Malian army commander Modibo Nama Traore said operations were continuing and it was not yet confirmed that all hostages are freed.
Malian special forces were freeing hostages “floor by floor,” Traore told The Associated Press. Still, Rezidor Hotel, the Brussels-based group that operates the hotel, said hours after the assault began that 125 guests and 13 employees remained in the hotel.
U.S. special forces troops assisted Malian forces in hostage rescue efforts, said Col. Mark Cheadle of the U.S. Army’s Africa Command. President Barack Obama said he’s monitoring the situation. At least six Americans were evacuated from the hotel but it was unclear how many more may be inside, Cheadle said.
France’s national gendarme service said about 40 French special police forces were playing a support role. The French defense ministry said French soldiers have arrived in Bamako to support Malian forces.
The guests at the sprawling, cream-and-pink colored luxury hotel, which has 190 rooms and features a spa, outdoor pool and ballroom, came from many countries. But the attack was perceived by many in France, particularly in the government, as a new attack on French interests.
The French military operation in Mali in 2013 against Islamic extremists who were holding the northern half of the country was the first of several foreign interventions that President Francois Hollande has launched as president. Those interventions have prompted increased threats against France and French interests from Islamic extremist groups from al-Qaida’s North African arm to the Islamic State group.
“This could be a strike at important French interests because the French government invested so much military energy in pushing the Islamic rebels out of Mali,” said Jens David Ohlin, an international law expert at Cornell University in the United States. “While Mali might not have the same emotional significance to the French as Paris does, it is certainly an important part of the French military strategy.”
French President Francois Hollande said: “We should yet again stand firm and show our solidarity with a friendly country, Mali.”
French news websites and all-news television networks immediately switched from nearly non-stop coverage of the Paris attacks investigation and aftermath to nearly non-stop coverage of the Bamako standoff. Air France says 12 members of one of its plane crew who are staying at the attacked hotel in Bamako are all safe.
Traore said at least one guest reported that the attackers instructed him to recite verses from the Quran before he was allowed to leave the hotel.
Ten gunmen had stormed the hotel shouting “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great,” in Arabic before firing on the guards, Traore said. A staffer at the hotel who gave his name as Tamba Diarra said over the phone while the attack was in progress that the jihadis used grenades in the assault.
Monique Kouame Affoue Ekonde, from Ivory Coast, said she and six other people, including a Turkish woman, were escorted out by security forces as the gunmen rushed “toward the fifth or sixth floor.”
“I think they are still there. I’ve left the hotel and I don’t know where to go. I’m tired and in a state of shock,” she said.
Belgian foreign minister Didier Reynders said four Belgians were registered at the hotel but their whereabouts were unknown.
Citing Chinese diplomats in Mali, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported that about 10 Chinese citizens were sheltering inside their hotel rooms. The embassy was in phone contact with them and all were reported safe, according to the report. All are employees of Chinese companies working in Mali.
Five Turkish Airlines personnel were among the freed hostages, Turkey’s state-run news agency said.
All 20 Indians staying at the hotel in Bamako have been safely evacuated, Vikas Swarup, spokesman for India’s foreign ministry tweeted. Swarup gave no other details.
The U.N. mission said it was sending security reinforcements and medical aid to the scene. U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said some U.N. “quick-reaction forces” deployed to the hotel and are supporting Malian and other security forces. He said the United Nations had a few staff members in the Radisson hotel at the time of the attack but they are all safely out.
Ambulances were seen rushing to the hotel as a military helicopter flew overhead.
Northern Mali remains insecure and militant attacks have extended farther south this year, including the capital. In March masked gunmen shot up a restaurant in Bamako that is popular with foreigners, killing five people.
France has 3,500 troops operating in Mali and four other countries in the Sahel region as part of a five-nation counterterrorism operation codenamed Barkhane. The ministry did not specify how many soldiers have been sent to the Malian capital.
The Netherlands also has troops working with the UN mission in Mali. According to the Dutch defense ministry, some 450 Dutch military personnel are taking part in the mission along with four Apache and three Chinook helicopters. Most of the Dutch force is based in Gao, but there are a few officers at the U.N. mission headquarters in Bamako.