BAMAKO: Four people held in a hotel in central Mali by Islamic extremists were freed on Saturday by the army and special forces after fighting since Friday left 12 people dead, Mali’s defense ministry adviser said.
“After the operation ended four additional bodies were found in the Hotel Byblos in Sevare, including three hotel staff and one attacker,” said Lt. Col. Diarran Kone.
Officials had earlier announced that five Malian soldiers were killed, two attackers and a UN contractor, bringing the total death toll to 12.
“The operation ended around 5 am,” he said. “The operation was led by Mali’s gendarmerie with our partners.”
The four hostages freed were UN employees, said UN mission in Mali spokeswoman Radhia Achouri. She would not give their nationalities but said they were at the UN offices in Sevare and would soon go to Bamako, Mali’s capital.
Mali’s special forces were transported to Sevare from Bamako early Saturday. The government said on Friday that forces detained seven suspected militants.
Northern Mali fell under the control of Islamic extremists in 2012 but a French-led offensive ousted them in early 2013.
Remnants of the extremists have staged attacks on UN peacekeepers and Malian forces, but Friday’s assault on a hotel popular with UN pilots marks a serious escalation.
Sevare and the nearby town of Mopti in central Mali have long been the heart of Mali’s tourism industry and had been spared the attacks more common in the northern towns of Gao and Timbuktu.
Mali’s insurgent groups have been stepping up their attacks further south from their strongholds in the north.
Islamic extremists started the attack Friday at the hotel in Sevare, about 600 kilometres north of Bamako.
Armed men stormed a hotel in central Mali on Friday in an apparent attempt to kidnap Westerners, killing at least three people and seizing hostages in an ongoing standoff with the army.
The attackers launched the assault on the Byblos hotel in the early hours of Friday in what military sources and local residents said appeared to be a bid to abduct foreign guests.
At least five foreigners three South Africans, a French national and a Ukrainian were registered at the hotel, according to several sources.
It was the third assault in a week in the west African country, which was still struggling to restore stability despite a landmark peace deal reached in June to end years of unrest, ethnic divisions and jihadist attacks particularly in the north.
Initial reports said another hotel, the Debo, had been attacked but the military source confirmed it was the Byblos.
A number of foreigners have been kidnapped by Islamist militants in Mali in recent years.
Friday’s assault also came just days after 11 Malian soldiers were killed on Monday in an attack on their camp in the Timbuktu region claimed by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM).
Another two were killed in an ambush on Saturday near the border with Mauritania.
AQIM was among several groups that took control of Mali’s north in 2012 before being ousted by a French-led military operation launched in January 2013.
Sevare lies near the main regional town of Mopti, a key staging post to the vast north of Mali that lies more than 640km northeast of Bamako.
Insurgent attacks have long been concentrated in Mali’s north, but began spreading at the beginning of the year to the centre of the country, and in June to the south near the borders with Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.
The United Nations maintains a mission in Mali with a force of more than 10,200 while former colonial master France has 1,350 soldiers on the ground.
Among those taken hostage in Mali South African Stephen Malcolm McGowan and Swede Johan Gustafson were abducted in Timbuktu in November 2011 and have been held since by AQIM.
A Dutch hostage kidnapped with the pair was rescued in April in a raid by French special forces.
In June, AQIM released footage of a jihadist with an English accent parading the two hostages.
French hostage Serge Lazarevic was freed in December last year after three years in the hands of Islamist militants in Mali.