, OUAGADOUGOU, Jan 19 – Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) Monday named three gunmen behind a deadly attack on a top Burkina Faso hotel that has highlighted the growing reach of jihadist groups in west Africa, as French police joined in the probe.
Burkinabe troops fanned out across the capital, Ouagadougou, with security stepped up at key sites as visiting Benin President Thomas Boni Yayi pledged that west African nations would fight back against a mounting terrorist threat.
The toll from the weekend attack rose to 30 late Monday with the death of French-Moroccan photographer Leila Alaoui, Morocco’s MAP news agency reported.
She was severely wounded when jihadist gunmen stormed the Splendid hotel and the nearby Cappuccino cafe she was visiting on Friday evening.
Alaoui, who has had several international exhibitions of her work, was on assignment in Burkina for Amnesty International.
A source close to the investigation said 20 people were arrested on Sunday and Monday in connection with the attack, which killed more than a dozen foreigners. Some of those arrested were later released.
Boni Yayi, speaking on behalf of the 15-member Economic Community of West African States, said: “We’re not going to just sit on our hands. We will react and respond”.
He spoke as details emerged about a delayed, ill-equipped response from Burkina Faso’s security forces, which have been weakened by recent political turmoil.
Twenty five of the victims have now been identified, public prosecutor Maiza Sereme told AFP, confirming that six Canadians and eight locals were among the victims.
Internal Security Minister Simon Compaore earlier said the foreign dead also included three Ukrainians, two French nationals, two Portuguese, two Swiss and a Dutch person.
The US State department has said an American also died.
– Search for clues –
French President Francois Hollande spoke by phone on Monday with his Burkinabe counterpart Roch Marc Christian Kabore, pledging “any assistance needed… for a proper investigation of these heinous acts”.
The first such incident in Burkina Faso, it came weeks after jihadists claimed an assault on a top hotel in Bamako, capital of neighbouring Mali, that killed 20 people.
At the Ouagadougou crime scene, an 18-strong team of French investigators, including forensic experts, joined local police combing for clues at the hotel and cafe.
In a statement carried by US-based monitoring group SITE, AQIM said the Splendid Hotel was “one of the most dangerous dens of global espionage in the west of the African continent”.
It published photos of the three young gunmen dressed in military fatigues and wielding weapons, identifying them as Battar al-Ansari, Abu Muhammad al-Buqali al-Ansari and Ahmed al-Fulani al-Ansari.
The operation was claimed by AQIM in the early hours of Saturday morning while the attack was still ongoing.
In their earlier statement, AQIM said the gunmen were from the Al-Murabitoun group of Algerian extremist Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
Authorities in Burkina Faso have said the bodies of three assailants had been identified, but several witnesses said they saw more than three attackers and a manhunt was under way for accomplices.
– ‘Equipment issues’ –
Until recently, Burkina Faso had largely escaped the tide of Islamist violence spreading in the restive Sahel region and the hotel assault will heighten fears that jihadist groups are casting their net wider in west Africa.
Witnesses said security forces waited hours before taking action against the attackers, with the first on the scene poorly equipped.
“Our men were raring to go. We were trained for this,” said a gendarme military police source. “We had equipment issues. No night vision goggles, no bulletproof shields, no door breaching tools.”
The elite presidential guard unit, which had a well-equipped and trained anti-terror squad, was disbanded after a coup attempt it staged in September.
Additionally, the authorities jailed the unit’s commander, General Gilbert Diendere, who led the intelligence services.
Previously the spying operation had provided intelligence to various countries, including France, during attacks and kidnappings across the region.
The attack began around 7:45 pm (1945 GMT) on Friday when the attackers stormed the 147-room Splendid Hotel in the heart of Ouagadougou.
The hotel and surrounding area became a battleground as local troops, backed by French forces based in the city under a regional counter-terrorism initiative, launched an attempt to retake the hotel around 2:00 am.
In a reminder of the fragile security situation, an elderly Australian couple were kidnapped on Friday in Burkina Faso’s northern Baraboule region, near the border with Niger and Mali.