Mali, U.S. Forces React After Gunmen Attack Hotel

Friday, November 20th 2015, 8:44 am
By: News 9

Islamic extremists armed with guns and throwing grenades stormed the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali's capital Friday morning, killing at least three people and taking numerous hostages, authorities said.

A U.S. State Department source told CBS News that no more hostages are being held and no Americans were killed. U.S. officials tell CBS News that all 22 Defense Department military and civilian personnel in Bamako are accounted for.

However, a group of gunmen continued to hold out against security forces, a Mali official told Reuters.

CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips says the attack involved as many as 10 militants who -- according to a local army commander -- rammed into the hotel grounds in a vehicle, firing guns and using grenades. Witnesses said the attackers were shouting "Allahu Akbar," or "God is great," the jihadist battle cry.

Malian troops, backed by special forces from America and France, reacted quickly. As people ran for their lives near the luxury hotel along a dirt road, the soldiers in full combat gear pointed the way to safety. Within hours, local TV images showed heavily armed troops in what appeared to be a lobby area. Malian state TV reported that 80 people have been freed.

There were two members of U.S. Special Forces who happened to be visiting Mali, CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports. One helped hostages away from the hotel and the other was in the Joint Operations Center.

Malian special forces were freeing hostages "floor by floor," Malian army commander Modibo Nama Traore told The Associated Press. Still, Rezidor Hotel, the Brussels-based group that operates the hotel, said hours after the assault began that 125 guests and 13 employees remained in the hotel.

U.S. special forces troops were assisting Malian forces in hostage rescue efforts, said Col. Mark Cheadle of the U.S. Army's Africa Command. President Barack Obama said he's monitoring the situation.

France's national gendarme service said about 40 French special police forces were playing a support role. The French defense ministry said French soldiers have arrived in Bamako to support Malian forces.

The guests at the sprawling, cream-and-pink colored luxury hotel, which has 190 rooms and features a spa, outdoor pool and ballroom, came from many countries. But the attack was perceived by many in France, particularly in the government, as a new attack on French interests, a week after the Paris attacks.

The attack unfolded one week after the attacks on Paris that killed 130 people.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al-Mourabitoun, the group run by Mokhtar Belmokhtar that carried out the attack on the sprawling gas plant in southeastern Algeria in January, issued a joint statment claiming responsibility for the siege.

They made the claim in a phone call to the Mauritanian news website Al-Akhbar, which regularly publishes statements by groups operating in West Africa.

Even before the claim, Ali Soufan, former FBI supervisory special agent, told "CBS This Morning" that (AQIM), could well be behind the assault, "because al Qaeda today definitely don't want to be upstaged by ISIS."

"They are in competition," said Soufan. "ISIS used to be part of al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is a poisonous tree and ISIS is just a branch of that tree. ISIS is a symptom of the diseases, al Qaeda is the disease."

The French military operation in Mali in 2013against Islamic extremists who were holding the northern half of the country was the first of several foreign interventions that President Francois Hollande has launched as president. Those interventions have prompted increased threats against France and French interests from Islamic extremist groups from al Qaeda's North African arm to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

"This could be a strike at important French interests because the French government invested so much military energy in pushing the Islamic rebels out of Mali," said Jens David Ohlin, an international law expert at Cornell University in the United States. "While Mali might not have the same emotional significance to the French as Paris does, it is certainly an important part of the French military strategy."

French news websites and all-news television networks immediately switched from nearly non-stop coverage of the Paris attacks investigation and aftermath to nearly non-stop coverage of the Bamako standoff. Air France says 12 members of one of its plane crew who are staying at the attacked hotel in Bamako are all safe.

Traore said at least one guest reported that the attackers instructed him to recite verses from the Quran before he was allowed to leave the hotel.

A handful of jihadi groups seized the northern half of Mali - a former French colony - in 2012 and were ousted from cities and towns by the French military intervention.

French President Francois Hollande said: "We should yet again stand firm and show our solidarity with a friendly country, Mali."

Monique Kouame Affoue Ekonde, from Ivory Coast, said she and six other people, including a Turkish woman, were escorted out by security forces as the gunmen rushed "toward the fifth or sixth floor."

"I think they are still there. I've left the hotel and I don't know where to go. I'm tired and in a state of shock," she said.

Belgian foreign minister Didier Reynders said that four Belgians were registered at the hotel but their whereabouts were unknown.

Citing Chinese diplomats in Mali, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported that about 10 Chinese citizens were sheltering inside their hotel rooms. The embassy was in phone contact with them and all were reported safe, according to the report. All are employees of Chinese companies working in Mali.

Five Turkish Airlines personnel were among the freed hostages, Turkey's state-run news agency said.

The U.N. mission said it was sending security reinforcements and medical aid to the scene. U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said some U.N. "quick-reaction forces" deployed to the hotel and are supporting Malian and other security forces. He said the United Nations had a few staff members in the Radisson hotel at the time of the attack but they are all safely out.

Ambulances were seen rushing to the hotel as a military helicopter flew overhead.

Northern Mali remains insecure and militant attacks have extended farther south this year, including the capital. In March masked gunmen shot up a restaurant in Bamako that is popular with foreigners, killing five people.

France has 3,500 troops operating in Mali and four other countries in the Sahel region as part of a five-nation counterterrorism operation codenamed Barkhane. The ministry did not specify how many soldiers have been sent to the Malian capital.

The Netherlands also has troops working with the UN mission in Mali. According to the Dutch defense ministry, some 450 Dutch military personnel are taking part in the mission along with four Apache and three Chinook helicopters. Most of the Dutch force is based in Gao, but there are a few officers at the U.N. mission headquarters in Bamako.