Mali hotel assault 'may be al Qaida attempt to reassert itself'
Islamic extremists who killed 19 people in a gun attack on a luxury hotel in Mali's capital timed their assault to catch security officers off-guard, according to witnesses.
Gunmen were said to have shot their way past a five-man security team before turning their weapons on terrified guests at the hotel in Bamako.
The timing suggested a well-planned operation that analysts say could be an attempt by al Qaida to reassert its relevance amid high-profile attacks by its rival group, Islamic State (IS).
Military chiefs said "more than three people" are being sought over the assault, with two attackers having been killed during the siege.
The attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako began at 7am local time on Friday when two gunmen, approaching on foot, reached the entrance where five guards who had worked the nightshift were waiting to be replaced by a new team.
One of the guards, Cheick Dabo, said his colleagues had just finished morning prayers and had put away their weapons - a shotgun and two pistols - when the militants struck.
He said: "We didn't see the jihadists until they started firing on us. We weren't concentrating and we didn't expect it."
Four of the guards were shot, one fatally, while Mr Dabo managed to hide under a car.
Government critics have attacked the level of security at the hotel and in the country, but interior minister Salif Traore said there was little to be done in the face of such determined attackers.
He told reporters: "They were ready to die, so the level of security is hardly important. The Radisson hotel had a level of security that was considered good."
Once inside, at least one of the assailants headed for the kitchen and restaurant, sparking pandemonium, said Mohammed Coulibaly, a cook at the hotel.
"I was busy cooking when a waitress started screaming at the door, 'They are attacking us, they are attacking us,'" Mr Coulibaly said.
"I asked everyone to go into the hallway, so everyone headed in that direction. Suddenly we heard the footsteps of the jihadists behind us and there was total panic, and people were running in every direction."
Mr Coulibaly said he then hid in a bathroom with one of the guests, but one of the assailants saw him through a window and started firing, prompting him to run to the kitchen where he was nearly overwhelmed by smoke.
"I realised that if I didn't leave the kitchen the smoke would kill me. So I waited until I didn't hear any noise and I ran from the kitchen and escaped the hotel through a window," he said.
By that point, the assailants were heading upstairs where they took dozens of hostages, launching a stand-off with Malian security forces that lasted more than seven hours and claimed 19 lives in addition to their own. All but one of the victims were hotel guests.
Mali's president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said the attack underscored the global threat posed by Islamic extremists, coming just one week after teams of attackers from IS killed 130 people in Paris.
"These people have attacked Paris and other places. Nowhere is excluded," Mr Keita said.
Army Major Modibo Nama Traore said security forces are hunting "more than three" suspects who may have been involved in the assault.
The government declared a 10-day nationwide state of emergency on Friday, with three days of national mourning beginning on Monday.
The Radisson attack was claimed by Al-Mourabitoun (The Sentinels), an extremist group formed by notorious Algerian militant Moktar Belmoktar, in a statement that said it was carried out in cooperation with al Qaida's "Sahara Emirate".
Jean-Herve Jezequel, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, said Al-Mourabitoun may be siding with al-Qaida in the face of the losses the extremists have suffered at the hands of French forces that intervened in Mali in 2013 after much of the north fell to radical Islamists.
The attack may also be a way for al-Qaida and its allies to assert itself in the face of the highly publicized string of attacks carried out by its chief rival in jihad, IS.
While IS does not have a major presence in this region, its successes elsewhere in the world have resulted in local radical groups pledging allegiance to it.
Among the dead in the Radisson attack were a 41-year-old American development worker, six Russian plane crew from a cargo company and three senior executives from the powerful state-owned China Railway Construction Corp, officials said.