BAMAKO, Mali — Security forces hunted gunmen inside a luxury hotel in Mali’s capital on Friday after attackers stormed past guards, killing at least 20 people and holding hostages as others among the 170 staff and guests fled for safety.
Hours after the standoff began, it appeared many people had managed to reach safety outside the hotel compound in a city that serves as a logistics hub for French forces helping fight Islamist insurgents.
The country’s security ministry said at least 20 people had been killed. The Reuters news agency, citing U.N. officials, said at least 27 bodies were seen.
Meanwhile, security forces tried to pin down the attackers. Officials said four gunmen were holed up in a hotel room, but that there are no hostages with them.
A group affiliated with al-Qaeda, al-Mourabitou, said its followers were behind the attack, according to the Reuters news agency, but the claim could not be independently verified. Mali has faced repeated attacks from militants linked to al-Qaeda and other factions, but the Islamic State does not have major footholds in the region.
“We have begun the last phase of our assault,” said Col. Salif Traore, Mali’s minister of security and civil protection.
Earlier, at least 80 captives managed to escape or were released by the attackers, state TV reported in Mali. Some were reportedly freed after being able to recite the Muslim profession of faith.
One Senegalese guest, Aïssatou Gueye, was in her room when the attackers entered. Like many other guests, she was there to attend a large mining conference.
“They were asking people to recite the Koran and if they do, nothing will happen to them,” she told a reporter outside the hotel. Aissatou saw one person shot dead before she ran to safety.
The hotel operators said more than 135 people — including 125 guests — were believed held hours after the standoff began. The reason for the discrepancy in the counts was not immediately clear.
Among those who reached safety were five members of a six-member Turkish Airlines crew, the company said. Air France also said its 12-member crew at the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako was safe. Six Americans also escaped, the U.S. military said.
Two U.S. Special Operations personnel helped to escort guests evacuated from the hotel, said Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Falvo, a spokesman for the U.S. Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany.
Authorities drew no direct links to last week’s attacks in Paris. But Mali — home to the famous ancient city of Timbuktu — has been at the center of a French-backed effort to drive back Islamist rebels that once had control over large portions of the vast nation, which stretches from tropical West Africa to desert regions bordering Algeria.
Security had been reinforced in Bamako — specifically around locations popular with foreigners, including the Radison — after the Paris attacks, Traore said.
He added that the attackers entered the hotel through a side entrance, “which makes us believe that they were familiar with the hotel.”
Malian army commander Modibo Nama Traore said gunmen stormed the hotel shouting “Allahu Akbar” — “God is great” in Arabic — and then fired on the guards and began taking hostages, the Associated Press reported.
At least three people were killed, the Malian military said.
Radical Islamists with ties to al-Qaeda have been active in Mali for years, occupying the northern part of the country for much of 2012. Even after they were forced out by a French-led military operation, militants have waged occasional attacks, including earlier this year on a hotel in central Mali and a military base in the south.
The Islamic State, meanwhile, has sought to expands it presence across North Africa and beyond though alliances with militant factions. But the Islamic State does not have significant footholds in West Africa.
France’s Gendarmerie Nationale, the national police, said a team of special forces was en route to Mali.
U.S. forces joined anti-insurgent operations in Mali several years ago. About 25 U.S. military personnel were in Bamako when the hotel was attacked.
Foreigners are often targeted in Mali. Yet militants had never before seized a target as prominent as the Radisson Blu, where foreign businessmen and diplomats are known to stay and dine.
Earlier this month — before the string of attacks in Paris — the leader of Ansar Dine, one of Mali’s main Islamist groups, released a statement encouraging attacks that would “push away the aggression of the French Crusader assailant” in the former French colony.
A contingent of French troops is stationed in Mali, and President François Hollande on Thursday praised the campaign against the Islamists insurgents.
“France is leading this war with its armed forced, its soldiers, its courage. It must carry out this war with its allies, its partners giving us all the means available, as we did in Mali, as we are going to continue in Iraq, as we will continue in Syria,” he said.
The Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, which runs the 190-room hotel, said there was 30 staff and 140 guests at the time of the attack, including U.N. envoys involved in Mali peace efforts.
The U.N. mission in Mali said it was “currently supporting Malian authorities and providing a security reinforcement while also deploying medical facilities in the area.” Over the past three years, the U.N. mission in Mali has been the deadliest in the world, with at least 53 members killed.
One of the rescued hostages, popular Guinean singer Sékouba “Bambino” Diabate, told reporters that he hid under his bed and heard two assailants speaking in English as they searched an adjacent room.
“I stayed still, hidden under the bed, not making a noise,” he said. “I heard them say in English, ‘Did you load it? Let’s go.’”
Extremist violence has hit Mali repeatedly.
In March, attackers reportedly shouting “Allahu Akbar” fired on a popular bar in Bamako. Three Malian civilians were killed, along with a Belgian security officer working for the European Union and a French national.
Two months ago, more than a dozen people — including five U.N. contractors — were killed in a 24-hour hostage siege at a hotel in Sevare in central Mali. Responsibility for that attack was claimed by Algerian jihadi leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who founded al-Mourabitoun, the group that claimed credit for today’s attack. The group was established two years ago in northern Mali and is also thought to be behind several other attacks.
Belmokhtar, the infamous one-eyed militant had also orchestrated the bloody seizure of an Algerian gas facility in 2013, where at least 100 workers were held hostage and dozens were killed. He was targeted in a US airstrike in June in Libya, and Libyan authorities said he had been killed. But the Islamist group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb rejected that claim.
Sieff reported from Nairobi, Kenya and Murphy reported from Washington. Sarah Kaplan and Craig Whitlock in Washington and Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.