Malian army spokesmen say the death toll from Friday’s assault on a hotel in the capital stands at 27 people, including two gunmen who carried out the attack.
Journalist Katarina Hoije, reporting for VOA from Bamako, says it is not clear if there was a third gunman in the attack on the Radisson Blu hotel. She says forensic investigators were at work inside the hotel Friday evening, after Malian special forces cleared the building.
Two West African militant groups — al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its affiliate El Mourabitoune — claimed joint responsibility for the attack. A U.S. defense official called AQIM the “leading suspect” in the assault.
Mali’s President Ibrahim Koubacar Keita, who cut short a visit to Chad to return to Bamako on Friday, has declared a state of emergency and three days of mourning in the West African nation. In remarks broadcast on state television, Keitha said the government will do everything it can “to eradicate terrorism in Mali.”
Earlier reports said the gunmen had taken up to 170 hostages and that only 80 had been released. Hoije says the discrepancy may be because some hotel guests escaped on their own and have not been accounted for.
She said the dead include French, Chinese and Canadian citizens. The U.S. State Department says one American was also among those killed.
Gunmen went room to room
The Radisson is a popular hotel for foreigners and was reportedly hosting delegates to Malian peace talks. Witnesses say gunmen entered the hotel in a car with diplomatic license plates early Friday morning, then went room to room seeking victims.
“When it started I thought that it was firecrackers. But it went on and on,” one hotel guest told VOA’s French to Africa Service.
“We heard the alarm from the hotel and I even went out of my room … but I noticed a lot of smoke in the hallway. I went back to my room and the Malian soldiers came, knocked on the door, took a small group of us out,” said the guest.
Malian special forces spent several hours going through the 190-room hotel, rescuing guests and tracking down the gunmen. Hoije says both of the deceased gunmen were killed by security forces.
U.N. peacekeepers stationed in Mali helped with the operation, while a number of French troops and two American military personnel assisted outside the hotel.
Condemnation from abroad
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement saying the U.S. condemns the terrorist attack in Mali and stands ready to support the Malian government in the investigation. “All those responsible for these recurring terrorist attacks must be held accountable,” he said.
Condemnation also came from United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and French President Francois Hollande.
The attack in Mali underscores the threat posed by Islamist militants who remain active in northern and central Mali despite the presence of U.N. peacekeepers.
A French-led military force ousted Islamist groups from power in northern Mali in 2013. The groups had seized power in the north after a military coup in Bamako in 2012.
An attack in the capital in March on a restaurant popular with tourists killed five people.
VOA’s Mike Richman and State Department Correspondent Nike Ching contributed to this report from Washington.