Mali Update – Gunmen Take 170 Hostage at Radisson Hotel in Bamako

Gunmen stormed a hotel packed with foreigners in the former French colony of Mali on Friday, taking 170 guests and workers hostages, U.S. Embassy officials and a hotel spokeswoman told NBC News.

Some managed to escape the upscale Radisson Blu, in the capital Bamako, but military officials told The Associated Press that at least three people had been killed.

The U.S. Embassy described it as an “ongoing active-shooter operation.”

The raid on the hotel, which was popular with foreigners and used by airline crews, comes a week after attackers killed 129 people in Paris.

In response, France announced the immediate dispatch of 50 elite counter-terrorism police to the country.

Mali army commander Modibo Nama Traore told The Associated Press that gunmen stormed the hotel shouting “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great,” in Arabic before firing on the guards and taking hostages.

The hotel’s owner said it was working to establish the names and nationalities of those taken.

“They have locked in about 140 guests and about 30 employees,” a spokeswoman for the Carlson Rezidor group, told NBC News. “So the hotel is locked down and there is no possibility to go out or come in.”

“As per our information the persons who have entered the building and have initiated the hostage-taking have locked the property, so it is not locked by police or other forces,” she added.

Monique Kouame Affoue Ekonde, an Ivorian, 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.”

In August, the Embassy issued a security message informing U.S. citizens “of a heightened security risk to westerners in southern Mali, including the area outside Bamako city.”

It said Friday it was aware of an “ongoing active-shooter operation at the Radisson Hotel.”

“The U.S. Embassy staff has been asked to shelter in place,” it said. “All U.S. citizens should shelter in place. Private U.S. citizens are encouraged to contact their family. Monitor local media for updates. U.S. citizens should adhere to the instructions of local authorities and monitor local media.”

Meanwhile, a Chinese guest with the family name Chen told China’s state-run Xinhua news agency that he was among a number of Chinese guests trapped in the hotel. At least seven Chinese tourists were among the hostages, the agency said.

The Indian government has said 20 Indians were staying in the hotel attacked this morning in Mali’s capital, Bamako, while Turkish Airlines said seven of its workers were staying in the hotel. Five had been freed by security forces, it said, although the fate of the other two was unknown.

Northern Mali was occupied by Islamist fighters, some with links to al Qaeda, for most of 2012 until they were driven out by a French-led military operation last year.

While no group has claimed to be behind the attack, it comes just days after the Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of the al Qaeda linked militant group Ansar Dine, called for attacks on France and its interests in Mali.

An Islamist group also claimed responsibility for the death of five people last March in an attack on a restaurant in Bamako that is popular with foreigners.

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