, BAMAKO, Nov 20 – Around 80 of 170 hostages seized when gunmen went on a shooting rampage at a luxury hotel in Mali’s capital on Friday have been freed, local television reported.
“Radisson hotel attack: special forces launched an operation, first hostages released, about 80,” the state-run ORTM channel said on a scrolling banner, without specifying the source of the information.
“Our special forces have freed hostages and 30 others were able to escape on their own,” Security Minister Salif Traore told AFP.
Security sources said the gunmen were jihadists who had entered the hotel compound at around 0700 GMT in a car that had diplomatic plates. Many of the guests were in their rooms when the attack began, the security ministry spokesman told AFP.
Automatic weapons fire was heard outside the 190-room hotel in the city centre, with the ministry spokesman saying at least three hostages had been killed.
Their identities were not yet known.
Chinese state news agency Xinhua said at least seven Chinese nationals were among the hostages, while Turkish Airlines said six of its staff were caught up in the attack.
“It’s all happening on the seventh floor, jihadists are firing in the corridor,” a security source told AFP earlier.
Malian soldiers, police and special forces were on the scene as a security perimeter was set up, along with members of the UN’s MINUSMA peacekeeping force in Mali and the French troops fighting jihadists in west Africa under Operation Barkhane.
Two freed female hostages — a Turkish aviation worker and an Ivorian woman who was at the Radisson for an economic conference — told AFP they saw the body of a fair-skinned man lying on the floor of the hotel.
A paramedic said three security guards had been wounded, including one who was in a critical condition after being shot. AFP’s correspondent saw a police officer, who had also been shot, being evacuated by security forces.
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who is in Chad for a summit of leaders from the Sahel region, is cutting his trip short and flying home, the presidency told AFP.
– ‘An obvious target’ –
The Rezidor Hotel Group, the US-based parent company of Radisson Blu, said there were a total of 170 hostages — 140 guests and 30 employees.
“Our safety and security teams and our corporate team are in constant contact with the local authorities in order to offer any support possible to reinstate safety and security at the hotel,” Rezidor said in a statement.
The US embassy in Mali advised any American citizens in the country to shelter where they were, contact their families and monitor local media.
A French consultant who stays regularly at the hotel described it as “an obvious target for terrorists”.
“The Radisson is at a crossroads, one of the roads was blocked. Security is provided by private guards. They passed a metal detector under cars,” said the consultant, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“I noticed that when they knew you, they didn’t (use the metal detector) any more.”
– Attacks despite peace deal –
The Radisson attack 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 also killed in an attack at a restaurant in Bamako in March in the first such incident in the capital.
Islamist groups have continued to wage attacks in Mali despite a June peace deal between former Tuareg rebels in the country’s north and rival pro-government armed groups.
In mid-2012 the north fell under the control of jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda. They supplanted Tuareg rebels and imposed a brutal interpretation of sharia law on the region, with Bamako reeling from a military coup.
The Islamists were largely ousted from towns by an ongoing French-led military operation launched in January 2013, but they have since launched sporadic attacks on security forces from desert hideouts.
Despite the peace deal, large swathes of Mali remain beyond the control of government and foreign forces.
In a recording authenticated by Malian authorities this week, a jihadist leader in Mali denounced the peace deal and called for further attacks against France, which is helping national forces fight extremists.