MALI’S security minister said there were “no more hostages held” at a luxury hotel that came under attack Friday in the capital Mali, after special forces ended the siege.
“They currently have no more hostages in their hands and forces are in the process of tracking them down,” Security Minister Salif Traore told a news conference.
The hotel’s owner, the Rezidor Hotel Group, said 170 guests and staff were initially trapped, with employees of the French and Turkish national airlines as well as Indians and Chinese among known to be among those staying there.
It was the end of a nine-hour drama that came to a head after Malian special forces backed by US and French troops stormed the building.
The presidency hailed the security forces that countered the attackers at a hotel popular with foreigners for its facilities and perceived security. Mali president Boubacar Keita had to cut short a trip to Chad.
US special forces helped rescue at least six Americans from the hotel, while French paramilitary police specialised in hostage situations were also in Mali to assist at the behest of Bamako, Paris
A foreign security source said 18 bodies had been recovered while a Malian military source said two attackers had been killed, but it was not clear if they were among the 18. There are fears this number could rise. A Belgian diplomat was among those killed.
There was no immediate confirmation of any link to the devastating Paris attacks last Friday that left 130 people dead, but Mali has been at the centre of French military operations against Islamists in north Africa.
The attack has been claimed by an Al-Qaeda-allied group, Al-Mourabitoun, which is said to be based in the country and is made up of mostly Tuaregs and Arabs. Their claim that the attack was “conducted in co-ordination with our brothers in AQIM” was yet to be verified.
AQIM is an acronym for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The most powerful jihadist groups active in Mali are aligned with al-Qaeda rather than Islamic State, which has emerged latterly as the global leader of violent Islamic extremism.
The Al-Mourabitoun group has been led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, nicknamed variously as “The Uncatchable”, “Mr Marlboro” and “The One-Eyed”, and who allegedly masterminded the siege of an Algerian gas plant in which 38 hostages died.
Earlier, Air France and Turkish Airlines confirmed that their staff had been freed.
Initial reports that Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man, was among those seized were inaccurate, he said in a Twitter post.
The influential Jeune Afrique publication said it had learnt the attackers had arrived in a car bearing diplomatic licence plates, allowing them to beat security.
The Radisson attack follows a siege in August lasting almost 24 hours at a hotel in the central 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.
Mali was plunged into violence after a military coup in March 2012 left a power vacuum that allowed Islamist militants to join with separatists and seize northern areas of the country.
While French and UN forces pushed the militants out of most of those strongholds in 2013, the government is struggling to regain authority there.