Gunmen stormed a luxury hotel in Mali’s capital on Friday, killing at least three people and taking about 170 hostages in a city that serves as a logistics hub for French forces helping in a fight against Islamist insurgents.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, and the identities or affiliation of the attackers was not clear.
Some captives managed to escape or were released by the attackers, who reportedly freed those able to recite a Muslim profession of faith. Among those released were five members of a six-member Turkish Airlines crew, the company said.
It was unclear how many people remained inside the hotel hours after the standoff began. Mali security forces and commandos surrounded the site.
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.
Malian army commander Modibo Nama Traore said at least 10 gunmen stormed the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako shouting “Allahu Akbar” — “God is great” in Arabic — then fired on guards and began rounding up hostages.
It is not clear how many people have been injured or killed in the assault. A Malian military official, Lt. Col. Diarran Kone, told the Associated Press there were three confirmed deaths, but gave no other details. According to CNN, two of the dead are Malian. One is a French national.
Security forces surrounded the hotel, which was hosting foreigners including U.N. envoys involved in Mali peace talks. Mali’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, cut short a trip to a regional summit in Chad, said a statement from his office.
In a statement issued on its Web site, the Rezidor Hotel Group, which operates the Radisson Blu in Bamako, said 30 the hostages were hotel staff, the group said. The other 140 were guests in the 190-room hotel near the city center.
Kassim Traoré, a Malian journalist was in a building about 150 feet from the Radisson, told the New York Times that the gunmen asked hostages to recite a Muslim declaration of faith called the shahada. Those who could were allowed to leave the hotel.
Some of those who left, including Malians and foreigners, were not wearing any clothes as they were taken to a police station, Traoré said.
A Chinese citizen who is trapped in the hotel told Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, that he heard gunshots go off outside his room around 6:30 a.m. He can smell smoke in the hallway and his room. Internet service in the hotel has been flickering on and off, he said, and when he tried to call down to reception the phone just rang and rang.
The man, who is identified by his last name, Chen, sent the agency videos and photos from the hotel showing local police in a stand off with the gunmen.
Olivier Salgado, a spokesperson for the U.N. mission to Mali, said the hotel was host to a large delegation of UN workers involved in the ongoing peace process in Mali. The Reuters news agency reported that French nationals were among those held, citing a source close to French president François Hollande.
French troops have been stationed in Mali since 2013 to help Mali fight insurgents in the northern part of the country.
The U.S. Embassy in Mali tweeted that it is aware of the “ongoing active shooter operation” at the Radisson and urged embassy staff and U.S. citizens to shelter in place. The White House says that President Obama has been briefed on the situation.
Northern Mali came under the control of Islamist militants in 2012, but were ousted by a French-led offensive the following year.
Extremist violence still crops up in the country. In March, attackers reportedly shouting “Allahu Akbar” fired on a popular bar in Bamako, according to the BBC. 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 United Nations contractors — were killed in a 24-hour hostage drama at a hotel in Sevare, in central Mali. Responsibility for that attack was claimed by Algerian jihadi leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, according to the AFP. 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.
Liu Liu contributed reporting from Beijing.