Nov. 23 (GIN) – An attack on the luxury Radisson Blu Hotel in the capital of Mali was carried out by some 10 Islamic militants said to be seeking revenge for French military operations in the country since 2012.
Before they were overwhelmed by Malian, French and U.S. coordinated actions, the militants took 170 hostages and killed 19, including one American. Five U.S. Department of Defense attaches staying at the hotel managed to survive Friday’s assault, according to the military publication Stars and Stripes.
One U.S. special operator aided Mali Special Forces as they moved hostages, including at least six Americans, to a secure location from the Radisson Blu in Bamako after militants stormed the building, AFRICOM spokesman Army Col. Mark Cheadle told reporters in Washington.
Colin Freeman of the UK Sunday Telegraph, stationed in Bamako, reported that the militants had questioned hotel security guards to know the whereabouts of an Air France crew staying there.
The guard’s account suggests that French citizens were singled out because of the country’s two-year long military campaign against Islamists in northern Mali. It might also explain the Air France’s decision to suspend its twice daily flights from Paris to Bamako shortly afterwards, Freeman said.
The assault began around 7 a.m. Friday morning when two gunmen, approaching on foot, reached the entrance where five guards who had worked the night shift were waiting to be replaced by a new team, said Cheick Dabo, one of the guards.
The guards had just finished the morning prayer and had put their weapons — a shotgun and two pistols — away in their vehicle when the militants struck.
“We didn’t see the jihadists until they started firing on us. We weren’t concentrating and we didn’t expect it,” he said.
Four of the guards were shot, one fatally, while Dabo himself managed to hide under a car.
A Jihadi group, the Al-Mourabitoun (The Sentinels), took credit for the attack. The group, which split two years ago from al-Qaida’s North Africa branch, said it wants its fighters freed from Mali’s prisons and attacks against northern Malians to stop, according to a recorded statement by Algerian militant Moktar Belmoktar carried by Al-Jazeera. The statement said the attack was coordinated with the “Sahara Emirate,” which is affiliated with al-Qaida.
Meanwhile, all DOD personnel — 22 military and civilian workers — in Bamako were accounted for and uninjured, a defense official said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the situation.
The rescue effort puts a spotlight on a mission the governments in Washington and Bamako have quietly cultivated in recent years. French and U.S. troops have worked with the Malian military as it battles a growing insurgency.
Mali has been in a state of political turmoil since 2012 when a military coup led by a U.S.-trained Malian captain toppled one of Africa’s more stable democracies. The French military intervened to quell the chaos that followed the coup. The U.S. provided air support.
Up to 4,000 French soldiers were involved, along with 6,400 soldiers from African nations, according to a Rand Corp. study of the mission. Among the French units involved were the French Foreign Legion, which included at least one U.S. soldier who had deserted to join.
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.