BAMAKO, Mali – Suspected Islamist militants attacked a hotel in central Mali used by United Nations staff on Friday, killing at least three people and exchanging fire with troops near the building, residents and military sources said.
Smoke rose from the hotel and heavy weapons fire was heard as government forces moved in to dislodge the gunmen, who raided the hotel near the airport in Sevare, around 600 km (400 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako before 8 a.m. (0800 GMT).
The body of a white male victim was visible in front of the hotel, a witness said. Two Malian soldiers were killed and three wounded in the fire-fight and an attacker strapped with explosives was also killed, military spokesman Souleymane Dembele said in a text message.
Dembele said an east European and three other personnel from the MINUSMA U.N. peacekeeping operation were believed to have escaped from the hotel. Nationals from South Africa, France and Ukraine had been in the hotel, he said.
Five hostage takers were thought to be inside the building, he added.
A 2013 French-led military operation succeeded in driving Islamist fighters, some of them with links to al Qaeda, out of cities and towns seized a year earlier in Mali’s desert north. MINUSMA was then deployed to maintain stability in the West African nation.
Friday’s attack, which took place well south of the Islamist militants’ traditional strongholds, highlights the continued threat posed by remnants of the insurgency that have stepped up their attacks on Malian soldiers and U.N. troops.
“People in the area are hiding in their houses. The attackers are still inside the hotel,” a Sevare resident said, adding he could hear heavy gunfire and the explosions of rocket-propelled grenades. “I see the smoke from the hotel,” he said.
MINUSMA spokeswoman Radhia Achouri confirmed that gunmen had entered a hotel in Sevare but would not comment on the possible presence of U.N. peacekeepers or officials.
“There was gunfire from early this morning and the situation continues. The Malian army is retaliating and reinforcing their position,” she said.
Ansar Dine, a Malian group with links to al Qaeda, last month claimed responsibility for a series of attacks on U.N. peacekeepers and the Malian army in Bamako and areas near the Ivory Coast and Mauritania borders.
Suspected militants killed 11 soldiers in a raid on an army base near the ancient northern city of Timbuktu on Monday. A military spokesman said on Thursday five people had been arrested in connection with the attack.