Associated Press Service
Mali was hunting Saturday for suspects wanted over the jihadist siege at a luxury hotel that left 19 people dead, mostly foreigners, as the president warned that no one in the world could hide from terrorism.
The government has declared a state of emergency after the bloody nine-hour hostage-taking at the Radisson Blu hotel in the capital Bamako on Friday, exactly a week after the Paris attacks.
The Al-Murabitoun group, an Al-Qaeda affiliate led by notorious one-eyed Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, nicknamed the “Uncatchable” or “Mr Marlboro”, claimed the attack.
Gunmen went on the rampage from the early morning, shooting in the corridors and taking 170 guests and staff hostage.
The assault, which ended when Malian and international troops stormed the hotel, left 19 people dead as well as two attackers, Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said.
The victims included six Russians, three Chinese, two Belgians, an American, an Israeli, a Senegalese and a member of the Malian special forces.
Authorities are now “actively pursuing” at least three people over the attack in the former French colony, one security source told AFP.
– ‘Break with humanity’ –
Keita, who vowed in a televised address on the day of the siege that “terror will not win”, visited the site Saturday.
“Nowhere in the world is one safe from these barbarians from another era,” he said, adding that the attackers had “decided to break with humanity”.
Senegalese President Macky Sall, who heads the regional Economic Community of West African States, will travel to Bamako on Sunday to offer his condolences, his office said.
Mali will begin three days of national mourning Monday.
“It’s very scary. It’s as if Bamako has become a war zone,” said local teacher Oumar Keita. “How were they able to get here, how did they get the weapons?”
Security remained tight around the Radisson and other hotels in Bamako and was also boosted discreetly at public buildings and banks.
The attack came as fears mount over jihadist threats a week after 130 people died in the Paris attacks claimed by the Islamic State group, which also said it had downed a Russian passenger jet in Egypt on October 31.
US President Barack Obama and his Russian and Chinese counterparts Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping condemned the hotel siege.
“This barbarity only stiffens our resolve to meet this challenge,” Obama said of the global terrorist threat.
Mali has been torn apart by unrest since the north fell under the control of jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda in 2012.
The Islamists were largely ousted by a French-led military operation launched the following year, but large swathes of Mali remain lawless.
UN chief General Ban Ki-moon also condemned Friday’s “horrific terrorist attack,” suggesting the violence was aimed at destroying peace efforts in the country.
– Dramatic rescue –
The assault began around 0700 GMT, when gunmen arrived at the hotel and starting shooting their way inside, taking guests and staff hostage.
Malian television broadcast chaotic scenes from inside as police and other security personnel ushered bewildered guests along corridors to safety.
Reports citing witnesses said the assailants entered the grounds at the same time as a 4×4 with diplomatic number plates corresponding to the US embassy in Bamako.
The US ambassador to Mali, Paul Folmsbee, said over state television late Saturday that a US embassy driver had gone to the hotel to pick up an American just as the attack was being launched decided to flee the scene, leaving the vehicle there.
Special forces — including Malian, French and two US soldiers who were also in the area — staged a dramatic floor-by-floor rescue, ending the siege after about nine hours.
In an audio recording broadcast by Al-Jazeera television, Belmokhtar’s group claimed responsibility, saying it had worked with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Belmokhtar, one of the world’s most wanted men, was indeed “likely” the brains behind the assault.
The jihadist is also accused of spearheading an attack on an Algerian gas plant in 2013 in which around 40 hostages were killed, most of them Westerners.
Guinean singer Sekouba Bambino Diabate, who was among the survivors, told AFP the gunmen spoke English among themselves.
France has more than 1,000 troops in its former colony, a key battleground of the Barkhane counter-terror mission spanning five countries in Africa’s restive Sahel region.
Friday’s drama follows another hotel siege in August in the central Mali town of Sevare in which five UN workers and four soldiers were killed.
Five people were also killed in an assault on a Bamako restaurant in March.