Saturday 20 January 2018

'Women terrorists singled out Westerners for execution'

29 slaughtered in attack which shows al-Qaeda threat as it expands beyond field of operations in Mali

MAYHEM: French special forces get ready to storm the Splendid Hotel where over 200 hostages were being held. Photo: Ahmed Ouoba/AFP/Getty Images
MAYHEM: French special forces get ready to storm the Splendid Hotel where over 200 hostages were being held. Photo: Ahmed Ouoba/AFP/Getty Images

Aislinn Laing in Burkina Faso

At least 29 people, including 18 westerners, were killed when four turban-wearing attackers from al-Qaeda's west African affiliate launched a bloody assault on a hotel and a cafe in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

Survivors who escaped from the city centre Hotel Splendid and the nearby Cafe Cappuccino told how the assailants struck just after 8.30pm as crowds were building on Friday evening, firing into the air and crying "Allahu Akbar" before starting to execute people at point-blank range.

In the Cafe Cappuccino, diners described pretending to be dead for almost an hour as the terrorists picked over them, killing anyone still alive before setting it alight and shooting at those who tried to escape.

"We had to play dead," said one dazed and tear-streaked local woman interviewed at a nearby hospital. "They shook people by the foot to see if they were alive or not and if they were alive, they shot them."

Foreign witnesses said the attackers - which according to some accounts included two women terrorists - had singled out westerners for execution as they calmly went about their killing spree.

"They kept coming back. You'd think it was over, then they'd come back and shoot more people. They would come back and see if the white people were moving and then they would shoot them again," a Slovenian social anthropologist told Reuters.

"My friend had a white dead person on top of her, bleeding on to her. But his body saved her," said the woman, who asked not to be named.

After crossing the road to the four-star Splendid Hotel, which is popular with western aid workers and French soldiers stationed locally, they then sprayed more bullets into the building before also torching it and nearby parked cars.

A shoe shine boy and a street hawker who had been selling cigarettes were later found among the dead.

One man described the militants as appearing to be little more than "children" who struggled under the weight of their heavy assault rifles.

Burkina Faso's president suggested two of the attackers were women, though France, which has a military base and thousands of nationals in its former colony, contradicted the claim.

The attacks were condemned around the world, coming weeks after a similar attack in the capital of neighbouring Mali in November where 22 people were killed after Islamist gunmen opened fire on the Radisson Blu Hotel.

Six Canadian citizens were confirmed as being among the dead, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last night.

"We offer our deepest condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of all those killed," Trudeau said in a statement.

Another woman said they appeared to be "Tuaregs", a reference to the Berber pastoralists who mainly live in Niger and northern Mali and whose separatist struggle was hijacked by Islamic extremists in 2012.

Responsibility for the assault was claimed by an al-Qaeda affiliated group run by one of the world's most wanted men, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, known as the One-Eyed Sheikh of the Sahara.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb said in a statement the Splendid Hotel assault was "revenge against France and the disbelieving West", designed to "punish the cross-worshippers for their crimes against our people in Central Africa, Mali and other lands of the Muslims". Its message, it added, had been "written by the heroes of Islam with their blood and body parts".

France was the first to condemn what its prime minister, Manuel Valls, described as "an attack on the world", confirming that at least two French nationals died.

Witnesses described "a complete bloodbath" which progressed into yesterday morning as local security forces and French and American commandos sought to take back control, hampered by booby traps left by the militants.

Jeremie Bangou, who was at the Cafe Cappuccino, said the attackers were "like children". "They recoiled every time they fired a shot because the weapons were so heavy for them," he said.

Three terrorists died at the first hotel, Burkinabe authorities said, and a fourth was chased into the nearby Hotel Yibi, which became the subject of a second security alert as dawn broke, before they too were neutralised.

Simon Compaore, the interior minister, said people from as many 18 countries were among the dead and that a total of 126 people had been freed, including 33 who were wounded.

Gilles Thibault, the French ambassador, put the death toll at 27, a figure that hospital authorities said had risen to 29 last night after two more victims died.

The attack showed al-Qaeda's growing ability to strike far from its traditional field of operations in northern Mali, where it's been fighting government troops, French soldiers and UN peacekeepers backed by US intelligence officials and special forces.

French President Francois Hollande has sent soldiers and fighter planes to former French colonies in Africa to repel the Islamists, whose attacks have intensified in Libya following the collapse of Muammar Gaddafi's government in 2011.

Roger Nikiema, a Burkinabe who was meeting friends at the Cafe Cappuccino opposite the hotel, said they had just placed their order when the gunfire started.

"We all threw ourselves on the floor," he said. "I was with six friends, three American girls and three guys. A bullet hit my arm and I have an injury there. I heard a female voice among the attackers."

One cafe survivor said diners at first mistook the gunfire and explosions for firecrackers before two gunmen, dressed all in black and brandishing AK-47 assault rifles, burst in.

Sunday Independent

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