Islamic extremists have stormed two hotels in central Mali, seizing at least six hostages and killing three Malian soldiers and a UN peacekeeper in one of the most brazen attacks in months, defence officials said.
The militants assaulted one hotel in the town of Sevare, and then after an exchange of gunfire moved on to the Hotel Byblos next door where they grabbed between six and 10 people, said Lt Col Diarran Kone.
"The operation to free the hostages is ongoing," he said.
The jihadists exchanged fire with the army, said Mali army spokesman Col Souleymane Maiga.
Moussa Bah, the owner of a hotel nearby, said of the hotels is frequented by pilots with the United Nations peacekeeping mission.
Smoke was coming from the hotel, said another resident.
"This morning as I was leaving for work I heard shots and saw smoke coming from the Hotel Debo. The area is surrounded by soldiers who told us to return to our homes," he said.
On Saturday, an ambush on a convoy killed two soldiers in central Mali.
In March, a masked gunman opened fire at a restaurant popular with foreigners in Bamako, the capital, killing five people. In June, gunmen killed three soldiers in a village near the Mauritania border. The next day extremists briefly occupied a village near Ivory Coast. Ansar Dine said it was behind those attacks.
Mali's north fell under the control of Islamic extremists amid a military coup in 2012. A French-led military intervention in 2013 regained control of the north.
Northern Mali fell under the control of jihadists in 2012 but a French-led offensive ousted them from power in early 2013. Remnants of the group have staged a number of attacks on UN peacekeepers and Malian forces thoughtoy's assault on a hotel known to be popular with UN pilots marks a serious escalation.
Sevare and the nearby town of Mopti in central Mali have long been the heart of the country's tourism industry and had been spared from the attacks more common in the northern towns of Gao and Timbuktu.
Mali's jihadist groups have been stepping up their attacks further south from their strongholds in the north.
In March, a masked gunman opened fire at a restaurant popular with foreigners in Bamako, the capital, killing five people. In June, gunmen killed three soldiers in a village near the Mauritania border.
The next day extremists briefly occupied a village near Ivory Coast. The extremist group Ansar Dine said it was behind those attacks.