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'19 killed' in Mali hotel siege

Published 20/11/2015

At least 19 people died when Islamic extremists armed with guns and grenades stormed the Radisson hotel in Mali's capital.

Security forces swarmed in to free guests floor by floor. As night fell, officials said no more hostages were being held and that at least 19 people had been killed.

US and French special operations forces assisted Malian troops in responding to the attack by an unknown number of gunmen. Shooting continued into the late afternoon, and a UN official said two attackers were dead.

An extremist group led by former al-Qaida commander Moktar Belmoktar claimed responsibility for the siege at the Radisson Blu hotel in the former French colony, and many in France saw it as a new assault on their country's interests a week after the Paris attacks.

As people ran for their lives near the hotel, troops in full combat gear pointed the way to safety, sometimes escorting civilians with a protective arm around their shoulders. Later, local TV showed heavily armed troops in what appeared to be a lobby, apparently led by an officer.

Reflecting the chaos surrounding the siege, various death tolls were reported during the day. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said 19 people died - 18 in the hotel and one Malian soldier killed in the fighting.

A UN official had earlier said initial reports put the number of dead at 27, but that different casualty figures have been reported and the organisation is working with authorities to get an exact total.

A Malian military official initially said there were 10 gunmen, but by later in the day, it was not clear how many assailants took part. It also was not known if the two dead attackers were included in the UN count of the dead.

Malian special forces went "floor by floor" to free hostages, said army Cmdr. Modibo Nama Traore.

US special forces assisted the Malian troops, said Col Mark Cheadle of the US Army's Africa Command. At least six Americans were evacuated from the hotel, although it was unclear how many were inside, he added.

About 40 French special police forces played a support role, France's national gendarme service said. The French Defence Ministry said its troops arrived in Bamako to support Malian forces.

About 170 guests and employees were initially taken hostage, but some apparently escaped in the initial chaos or hid in the sprawling, cream-and-pink hotel that has 190 rooms and a spa, outdoor pool and ballroom.

"It was more like a real terrorist attack," said UN Mission spokesman Olivier Salgado. "The intention was clearly to kill, not to necessarily have people being hostage."

Traore said at least one guest reported the attackers instructed him to recite verses from the Koran before he was allowed to leave.

The guests included visitors from France, Belgium, Germany, China, India, Canada, Ivory Coast and Turkey. But the attack was perceived by many in France, particularly in the government, as a new attack on French interests.

The gunmen had stormed the hotel shouting "God is great," in Arabic before firing on the guards, Traore said.

France has 3,500 troops operating in Mali and four other countries in the Sahel region as part of a five-nation counterterrorism operation. The ministry did not specify how many soldiers were sent to Bamako.

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