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Mali forces storm hotel, ending siege by gunmen

Al-Qaeda offshoot claims responsibility for attack by gunmen in Bamako which left up to 27 people dead
Security forces move escaped hostages to safety at the Radisson Blu in Bamako, Mali (AFP)

Malian troops backed by US and French special forces stormed a hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali, on Friday, ending a seven-hour siege by gunmen in which up to 27 people were reportedly killed and 170 held hostage.

The siege at the Radisson Blu in Bamako appeared to be over on Friday evening after security forces mounted an operation to retake the building "floor by floor". However, on Saturday security sources in Mali told AFP that a manhunt for at least three suspects was still underway. 

Malian Security Minister Salif Traore said at a news conference that the gunmen "have no more hostages in their hands and forces are in the process of tracking them down".

Malian security sources told the AFP news agency that 27 bodies had been removed from the hotel and that three gunmen had been killed, although other sources indicate the death toll could be closer to 21. 

Following a crisis cabinet session presided over by Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the government "declared a state of emergency across the nation" for 10 days, starting at midnight Friday, a statement read on national radio said. It also called for three days of mourning for the victims, who included three Chinese, an American and a Belgian. At least one Russian national is also now known to be amongst the dead, Moscow confirmed after initially denying reports its nationals were caught up in the attack. 

Responsibility for the attack was claimed by al-Mourabitoun, an offshoot group of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) based in northern Mali and headed by a veteran al-Qaeda fighter, Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

In an audio statement broadcast by the Qatari television network Al Jazeera, a spokesperson for the group said: "We al-Mourabitoun, with the participation of our brothers from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, claim the hostage-taking operation at the Radisson hotel."

Belmokhtar was responsible for an attack on the Amenas gas plant in Algeria in 2013 in which 40 people were killed.

Up to 10 gunmen were reported to have taken part in Friday attack, although official reports said there were only two or three. 

The militants stormed the building at about 8am local time. Reports said they had either smashed through a security gate in a car with diplomatic plates or simply walked into the building. 

Automatic-weapons fire could be heard from outside as the militants attacked the 190-room hotel, the AFP agency reported. The hotel operator, Rezidor, said that 170 people - 140 guests and 30 staff - were in the building at the time. 

"It's all happening on the seventh floor; jihadists are firing in the corridor," one unnamed source told AFP early in the attack.

Within hours, Malian troops had surrounded the building and several hostages were either allowed to go free or escaped. Unconfirmed reports stated that the attackers freed those who could recite verses of the Quran. 

By 2pm, Malian troops backed by French forces based in the capital had stormed the building, leading to the escape of 80 hostages. Local television showed images of soldiers in the foyer area of the hotel.

The US defence department said that US forces based in Mali had rescued six American citizens, while France said it also had troops at the scene.

The nationalities of those being held hostage included American, Turkish, Chinese and Indian. Air France, the French national carrier, said 12 staff staying at the hotel were safe. Three Turkish Airlines staff were said to have been among those who escaped.

A Belgian local-government worker was confirmed dead by his employer.

Mali is a former French colony in West Africa. Following a military coup in 2012, al-Qaeda-linked fighters took control of the north of the country, prompting a French-led military intervention in early 2013.

The militants were scattered from northern towns and cities, though the north remains insecure and armed attacks have extended further south this year. 

Militant groups have continued to wage attacks in Mali despite a June peace deal between former Tuareg rebels in the north of the country and rival pro-government armed groups.

A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday's attack was an attempt to derail peace efforts.

"The secretary-general deplores any attempt to derail the implementation of the agreement," said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

US President Barack Obama on Saturday condemned what he called the "appalling" jihadist hostage seige that claimed the life of one American citizen.

"This barbarity only stiffens our resolve to meet this challenge," he said during a visit to Malaysia, referring to the global threat of extremist violence.

The shooting at the Radisson 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 in the first such incident in the capital.

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