Foreigners Rescued And 7 Killed In Mali Hotel Siege

Five foreigners and several other hostages were freed overnight after they were held by gunmen who raided a hotel in central Mali in an attack that left at least seven people dead, military sources said early Saturday.

At least five Malian soldiers are believed to have been killed in the operation to end the siege at the Hotel Byblos in Sevare, which is popular with UN peacekeeping staff.

A source told AFP that “a number of hostages” were freed by Malian forces, including the five foreigners, although their nationalities were not specified.

Located only a few kilometres from the regional capital Mopti, Sevare is a key staging post on the road to the desert north which fell to Islamic extremists in 2012.

The UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA) said in a statement that “reports indicate that a member of the international personnel associated with MINUSMA was killed in the attack”.

Sources told AFP that three South Africans, a Frenchman and a Ukrainian had been registered at the hotel before the attack. A Russian diplomat said a Russian was among the hostages.

The gunmen had stormed the hotel at around 7:00 am (0700 GMT) on Friday, according to the government.

One of the attackers was wearing an explosives belt, one of the military sources said.

Malian forces cordoned off the area but their efforts to dislodge the gunmen were complicated by the presence of hostages, a source said Friday.

The Malian army brought the siege to an end early Saturday.

The military operation “has ended and the hotel has been cleared”, one of the military sources said.

The government said Friday there were “five dead, two injured” on the Malian army side and two of the attackers were killed although it was not clear whether the military toll included the MINUSMA staff member.

The UN mission said it had sent a Malian rapid response team from the capital Bamako — 620 kilometres (385 miles) to the south — and reinforced security at Sevare-Mopti airport.

It said the initial target of the attack was a Malian military site.

“The attackers, who were pushed back by the Malian Armed Forces, then took refuge in a hotel,” MINUSMA said.

A Malian military source had earlier said at least eight people had been killed with “three bodies lying in front of the hotel next to a burned-out minibus.”

A spokesman for the Russian embassy in Mali told the RIA Novosti agency that the Russian hostage was an employee of UTAir, an aviation company that works with the UN peacekeeping mission.

A Ukrainian hostage managed to escape from the hotel and said up to five gunmen had led the hostage-taking.

French President Francois Hollande said French citizens could also “possibly” be caught up in the attack.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which comes as Mali battles a resurgence in jihadist violence, two years after a French-led offensive routed three Islamist factions from most parts of the country.

France has more than 1,000 soldiers based in northern Mali as part of regional anti-terrorist efforts.

– Sporadic attacks –

The hotel attack 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.

Islamist militants have kidnapped a number of foreigners in Mali in recent years, at least two of whom are still being held hostage by Al-Qaeda’s front group in the region AQIM.

AQIM and two allied Islamist groups seized control of Mali’s north in 2012 before being ousted by French and Malian forces in January 2013.

The insurgents have continued to mount sporadic attacks from their bases in the desert, mainly in the north.

But the attacks have spread since the beginning of the year to the centre of the country and to the south near the borders with Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso. (Vanguard)
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