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Suspected jihadists attack hotel in central Mali

At least one hotel in the central Malian town of Sevare, just miles away from the central Malian hub of Mopti, has come under attack by suspected jihadist gunmen. It is unclear which hotel was targeted, although the BBC has reported that Malian soldiers have surrounded the Debo, the Motel, the Byblos, and the Flandres hotels. However, other sources have reported the fighting to just be occurring at the Debo hotel. As of this writing, the siege is ongoing.

A local resident told the BBC that the attack started around 7:30 a.m. local time when gunmen on motorcycles arrived and opened fire on the hotel. Residents fled inside before the gunmen followed them into the building. According to Reuters, at least seven people have been killed in the siege. "Four Malian soldiers were killed and three wounded in the fire-fight, an attacker strapped with explosives and another jihadist was also killed," a military spokesman told the wire news service. The death toll could rise as the siege continues. Gunfire continues from the hotel and smoke is said to be coming from the building.

A "white body," implying a Westerner, is also said to be laying near the hotel. The Debo is also frequently used by UN staff, which is likely the reason it was targeted. Reuters reported that four UN personnel were able to escape the hotel, but nationals from France, South Africa, and Ukraine had been in the complex. It is unclear if they were able to escape or are currently being held in the siege. At least five gunmen are said to be involved in the attack.

Attacking hotels is a common tactic of al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, the Islamic State, and a slew of other jihadist groups. Many hotels that jihadists target are frequented by Western tourists, Western government officials, or are host to local government figures. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Qaeda's official branch in North Africa, has a history of kidnapping Westerners, many from Malian hotels. This includes the Swede Johan Gustofsson, South African Stephen McGowan, and the Dutchman Sjaak Rijke. The three, along with a German national, were kidnapped from a hotel in Timbuktu. Rijke has since been released, but Gustofsson and McGowan are still being held.

Late last month, Shabaab, al Qaeda's official branch in Somalia, targeted the Jazeera hotel in Mogadishu, killing at least 10 people. That hotel, which hosts many foreign embassies and dignitaries, has been targeted by Shabaab many times in the past.

In May, the Taliban attacked the Park Place hotel in Kabul, killing 14 people including nine foreigners. Gunmen entered the hotel before firing on civilians and taking hostages. The Taliban have have prioritized attacks against hotels in Kabul.

Earlier this year, the Islamic State said its forces carried out a siege on a hotel in the Libyan city of Tripoli. A car bomb was detonated outside the Corinthia hotel complex before gunmen stormed the building. The attack killed at least five foreigners and three guards.

Recent attacks in Mali

The hotel attack comes just days after two Malian soldiers were killed and five others wounded when their convoy was ambushed by gunmen near the Mauritanian border. No group has yet to claim this ambush, but al Qaeda-linked militants are suspected. Many jihadist groups operate in central Mali, including AQIM, Ansar Dine, and the Macina Liberation Movement, which is likely a Fulani front for Ansar Dine.

On June 28, several Ansar Dine gunmen entered the town of Nara, just 19 miles from the Mauritanian border, storming several government buildings and assaulting the local Malian Army camp. The incident left 12 people dead, including two Malian soldiers, one civilian, and nine jihadists.

Additionally, Ansar Dine stormed, and briefly held, the small Malian village of Fakola, just miles away from the border with Ivory Coast. The attack, which caused no reported causalities, was the second in less than a month near the border with Ivory Coast. The group also claimed an assault on a police station in the town of Misseni, also near Ivory Coast, on June 10.

Ansar Dine is part of al Qaeda's network in Mali. The jihadist group was formed in 2011 and throughout 2012 it worked with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Tuareg separatist groups to take over Mali's north. A confidential letter written by AQIM emir Abdelmalek Droukdel that was found after the liberation of northern Mali stated that AQIM fighters should hide their activities under the banner of Ansar Dine. A leader of Ansar Dine was also recently killed alongside the emir (leader) of AQIM's Katibat al Ansar in a French special forces raid in northern Mali.

AQIM also took responsibility for a recent attack on an army outpost in the northern town of Gourma-Rharouss, just miles from the city of Timbuktu. The assault left around 10 soldiers dead and two vehicles burned before the jihadists withdrew, according to the Associated Press.

Additionally, the al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist group al Murabitoon has undertaken several attacks in Mali's capital of Bamako. The attacks include an assault on a Malian nightclub, which killed five people, an attempted assassination on a Malian general, and an attack on UN troops.

Al Qaeda continues to operate in Mali despite a French-led counterterrorism mission in the region. The jihadist group and its many affiliates in the country retain the ability to mount rocket, mortar, and IED attacks on UN and French forces. At least 50 UN peacekeepers have been killed in Mali since 2013, making it the most dangerous UN mission in the world.

[Source: By Caleb Weiss, The Long War Journal, NJ, 07Aug15]

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