Nineteen people and two attackers killed in Mali hotel attack

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Assailants with guns blazing attacked a hotel hosting diplomats and others in Mali's capital on Friday morning, leaving at least 10 people dead and trapping dozens in the building for hours, officials in the West African nation said. Photo Courtesy: CNN

By Faith Karimi and Erin Burnett

(CNN) — Gunmen raided a Malian hotel as guests gathered for breakfast, hollering “Allahu akbar” as they sprayed bullets on tables of people, a witness said.

The attackers did not say a word to anyone as they opened fire, employee Tamba Couye said.

They shot at “anything that moved” as terrified patrons dashed for cover all over the hotel, he said.

By the time the siege ended hours later, bodies were scattered across the floors of the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako. At least 19 people died in the attack Friday morning, the U.N. said. In addition, two attackers were killed.

Scores of people were trapped before Malian and U.N. security forces surrounded the hotel and rushed in.

Employee: They shot at everyone

Couye was at the restaurant when attackers barged in.

“They started firing at the tables,” he said. “They walked through the hotel door and started to shoot at everybody. Then they returned to the restaurant and closed its doors.”

He hurriedly evacuated employees through an exit door as chaos erupted.

“One of the attackers was yelling “Allahu akbar!,” he said.

“These people started shooting. They were shooting at everybody without asking a single question. They were shooting at anything that moved.”

The United Nations said two or three gunmen attacked the hotel.

‘I saw … bullets’

Michael Skapoullis said he was using the hotel’s gym when he noticed fellow exercisers leaving. Though he was listening to music and hadn’t heard anything, he followed.

He walked to a door leading to the hotel lobby, and knew something was wrong.

“When I opened the door, I saw, on the floor, bullets,” he said. “So I gently closed the door.”

He fled back to the gym, and eventually left the hotel using a side door.

Peace talks

The hotel was hosting delegations attending peace talks. The former French colony has been battling Islamist extremists with the help of U.N. and French forces.

About 140 guests and 30 employees were there when the attack began, the Radisson chain said.

The hotel in an upscale neighborhood in Bamako is a hub for international guests, and is a 15-minute drive from the main international airport.

Claims of responsibility

Regional news agencies pointed fingers at two groups.

Islamist militant group Al Mourabitoun claimed it carried out the attack together with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, according to the Al Akhbar news agency.

It said the attack was retaliation for government aggression in northern Mali, Al Akhbar reported. The group also demanded the release of prisoners in France.

Algerian jihadist and leader of the group, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, may be behind the attack, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told France’s TF1. But he said France was not sure.

Belmokhtar was targeted in a U.S. airstrike in Libya in June. While Libyan officials said he had been killed, their U.S. counterparts never confirmed his death publicly.

Why was the hotel targeted?

Mongi Hamdi, head of the U.N. mission in Mali, said the diplomats’ meetings may be a likely reason why the hotel was targeted.

“I think this attack has been perpetrated by negative forces, terrorists, who do not want to see peace in Mali,” Hamdi said.

Speaking in Malaysia, U.S. President Barack Obama said swift action of Malian and other security forces saved lives. He said the victims were “innocent people who had everything to live for.”

Mali’s struggle for stability

Mali has struggled with instability and Islamist extremists for years.

After a March 2012 military coup plunged the country into chaos, Islamist extremists with links to al Qaeda carved out a large portion of northern Mali for themselves.

At the Malian government’s request, France sent thousands of troops in 2013 to help push out the militants. The U.N. also established a peacekeeping mission to keep the government secure enough to continue a peace process.

Though military pressure largely drove Islamist militants from cities, they regrouped in the desert areas, said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.

“Unfortunately, this (hotel) is a likely target” because it is popular with international guests, Pham said.

A day before the attack, French President Francois Hollande praised his troops for fighting Islamists in the former French colony. It also came a week after ISIS targeted France with shootings and suicide bombings, killing 130 people.

Victims were from all over the world

As news of the attack spread, officials from various nations accounted for their citizens.

U.S. citizen Anita Datar died in the attacks, her brother Sanjeev Datar said.

Geoffrey Dieudonne, an administrative counselor for Belgium’s Parliament, was also killed, Parliament said. He was in Bamako as part of a three-day French-language convention.

Three Chinese nationals were killed, the Chinese Embassy in Bamako told state media.

The complete list of victims’ nationalities has not been released.

August attack

In August, 12 people were killed in a hostage situation at a hotel in central Mali.

Soldiers stormed the hotel in Sevare to end the daylong siege that started when gunmen raided the hotel after attacking a military site nearby.

At the time, Mali said the attackers were affiliated with the Macina Liberation Movement, an Islamist militant group.

CNN’s Radina Gigova, Steve Almasy, Jason Hanna, Ross Levitt, Greg Botelho, Christian Purefoy, Nima Elbagir, Pierre Meilhan, Alanne Orjoux, Kevin Wang, Archith Seshadri, Chris Liakos, Zain Asher and Ashleigh Banfield contributed to this report.