Malian security forces have freed hostages after Islamist militants took at least 100 people hostage at a luxury hotel in the capital Bamako. At least 21 people have been killed.
A hostage crisis at a luxury hotel in Bamako that claimed the lives of at least 21 people has ended after Malian security forces stormed the building in a room-to-room operation.
In a brazen early morning attack in Bamako, the gunmen stormed the Radisson Blu, the African country's most popular lodging for foreigners, shouting "Allahu Akbar," or "God is great," in Arabic.
The gunmen went on a shooting rampage, threw grenades and initially took around 170 guests and staff hostages as they moved from floor-to-floor in the 190-room hotel.
After nearly nine hours Malian security forces said they had freed the remaining hostages.
"They currently have no more hostages in their hands, and forces are in the process of tracking them down," Security Minister Salif Traore told a news conference.
He said at least two gunmen had been killed and special forces are trying to dislodge the remaining gunmen from the upper floors of the hotel.
The hostages included Americans, Chinese, Indian, Turkish, Algerian and European citizens.
Jihadists claim responsibility
Al-Mourabitoun, an Islamist group of Tuaregs and Arabs in northern Mali, claimed responsibility for the attack and said they worked with an al-Qaeda affiliate.
In a recorded statement run by Al-Jazeera the group said it wanted the government to free prisoners and stop attacks in the north of the country.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Mokhtar Belmokktar, the leader of al-Mourabitoun, was "likely behind this attack although we are not completely certain of it."
It was not immediately clear if the attack was related to the terror events in Paris.
French and American special forces assisting
France and the United States, which both have Special Forces in the region, are aiding Malian security forces.
An unknown number of France's elite Special Forces arrived on the scene at 13:00 GMT from Burkina Faso at Mali's request.
"We have to, once again, keep going and show our solidarity with a country that is a friend, Mali," French President Francois Hollande said. France has some 3,500 troops in the region as part of a counter-terrorism and stability force.
The United States said its Special Forces are also helping remove hostages, including what it said were at least six Americans.
The United Nations mission said it was sending armed reinforcements.
Peace process in question
Friday's shooting in the Radisson complex follows a hotel siege and hostage-taking in the central Malian town of Sevare in August, when four soldiers, five UN workers and four attackers were killed. And in March, masked gunmen opened fire inside a Bamako restaurant frequented by foreigners, killing five people.
The UN said it hoped the assault on Friday would not upset a nascient peace process in Mali signed between Tuareg rebels - but not jihadists - and the government earlier this year. The agreement would grant greater autonomy to ethnic Tuaregs.
In the spring of 2012, jihadists with links to the al Qaeda terror network invaded northern Mali, taking advantage of a local rebellion by armed Tuareg separatist against the central government in Bamako in southern Mali.
Most of the jihadists were driven out of northern Mali by a French-led intervention force in January 2013, though they still control some territory in the far north.
cw/jm (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)