Gunmen seize foreign hostages in deadly attack on Mali hotel
Gunmen stormed a hotel in central Mali on Friday, killing at least three people and seizing hostages including several foreigners in an ongoing standoff with the army.
Among the dead were two Malian soldiers, while the body of a white man was seen lying sprawled outside the hotel in the town of Sevare, military sources said.
Kiev confirmed a Ukranian national was among the hostages, while Moscow said it believed a Russian aviation official was also being held. Three South Africans and a French national were also believed to be staying at the hotel.
There has been no claim of responsibility for the early morning attack, and no official comment from the government in the west African country, which is facing increasing jihadist violence despite a peace deal.
A Malian security source said the raid was a failed bid to kidnap several Russian nationals working as UN peacekeepers, who escaped unharmed.
Malian troops surrounded the hotel and shot dead one of the attackers who was wearing an explosive belt, a military source said, adding that two soldiers were killed and three wounded.
"Attackers have taken some foreigners hostage in one of the hotels in the area. The army has completely sealed off the area and the town is in lockdown. They have asked people to stay at home," a local official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
- Sporadic shooting -
He said the hostages could well be UN peacekeepers who tend to stay in hotels in the town, which lies near regional capital Mopti, a key staging post to the vast desert north which fell to Islamist extremists in 2012.
The deadly standoff appeared no closer to resolution many hours after it began, and sporadic shots were heard around the Byblos and neighbouring Debo hotel at around 1500 GMT.
It was the third assault in just a week in Mali, which is still struggling to restore stability despite a landmark peace deal agreed in June to end years of unrest and ethnic divisions.
A number of foreigners have been kidnapped by Islamist militants in Mali in recent years and at least two are still being held hostage by Al-Qaeda's front group in the region.
- 'UN peacekeepers targeted' -
Malian army sources said the target of Friday's assault appeared to be a group of Russian pilots working for MINUSMA, the local UN peacekeeping mission.
"The pilots were evacuated to a Malian military base in Sevare and the jihadists are holed up inside the hotel. Now we must get them out," one source said.
The UN mission in Mali, which has more than 10,200 military and police on the ground, was not available to confirm the information.
"The shooting is still going on but I don't know who is shooting," one woman resident told AFP, who said she had been woken by gunfire and was hiding at home with her family.
A spokesman for Russia's mission in Mali said one of its nationals working for the UTair airline was likely among the captives.
"One member of staff of UTair is apparently in the hotel that was seized by terrorists," Viktor Gorelov was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.
He said three other Russians reported captured "have all been found".
Kiev confirmed one of its nationals was being held, while South Africa said it was "aware of the situation" and liaising with the Malian authorities.
"There is a Ukrainian among the hostages. With our international partners, we are taking urgent measures in order to secure the release of our national," foreign ministry spokeswoman Mariana Betsa wrote on Twitter.
There was no immediate word from former colonial power France, which has 1,350 soldiers on the ground as part of a regional anti-terrorist operation.
AQIM was among several jihadist groups that took control of Mali's north in 2012 before being ousted by a French-led military operation launched in January 2013.
Jihadist attacks have long been concentrated in Mali's north, but began spreading at the beginning of the year to the centre of the country, and in June to the south near the borders with Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.
Among the hostages seized in recent years, South African Stephen Malcolm McGowan and Swede Johan Gustafson were abducted in Timbuktu in November 2011 and are still being held by AQIM.
A Dutch hostage also kidnapped with the pair was rescued in April and in December 2014, a French national was freed after being held for three years by Islamists.
© 2015 AFP