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At least 20 hostages dead in siege of hotel in Mali, official says

Security forces swept through a luxury hotel in Mali's capital on Friday, freeing hostages and surrounding militants who killed at least 20 people -- including one American -- in the latest bloodshed apparently linked to the country's battles against Islamist insurgents.

Mali's security minister, Col. Salif Traore, said all hostages were safe after gunmen stormed the Radisson Blu hotel, sending some of the 170 staff and guests fleeing in panic and others cowering in hiding places during the seven-hour standoff.

One witness said the attackers freed some captives who were able to recite verses from the Koran. An al-Qaeda-linked group asserted responsibility.

At least 20 people were killed, said Traore. The Reuters news agency, citing U.N. officials, said at least 27 bodies were seen.

The State Department said a U.S. citizen was among the dead. It did not immediately identify the person. A department spokesman had reported earlier that no Americans were killed or injured in the attack.

Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, said the attack killed "an unknown number of civilians and injured many more." Three U.N. staff members in the hotel during the attack were safely evacuated, he said. The world body has envoys in Bamako as part of Mali peace efforts.

Meanwhile, security forces tried to pin down the attackers in the heart of Bamako, which served as a logistical hub for French forces aiding in the fight against Islamist militants in Mali -- a vast Western-allied nation that stretches from tropical West Africa to desert regions bordering Algeria.

Officials said four gunmen were holed up in a hotel room but that there were no hostages with them. A U.N. spokesman said later two attackers were dead.

A group affiliated with al-Qaeda, al-Mourabitoun, said its followers were behind the attack -- similar to a hotel assault in August that was also claimed by the same militants. Mali has faced repeated attacks from insurgents linked to al-Qaeda and other factions, but the Islamic State does not have major footholds in the region.

About a dozen Americans were rescued from the Radisson hotel, including several employees of the U.S. Embassy in Bamako, said State Department spokesman John Kirby. The ambassador was not there, he said.

Kirby swatted down a rumor that a vehicle bearing U.S. diplomatic license plates was involved in the attack. Kirby said that was false, although a vehicle with diplomatic plates was on the hotel grounds at the time. It was driven by a U.S. government employee, and the driver and passengers all escaped unharmed, Kirby said.

The U.S. Embassy in the Malian capital lifted its recommendation that Americans shelter in place, but it advised them to stay off the streets of Bamako as much as possible and be aware of their surroundings.

"We can confirm that the attack has ended, and we continue to coordinate with U.S. officials on the ground to verify the location of all American citizens in Mali," National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in Washington shortly after 3:30 p.m. Eastern time. He said the United States condemns the "heinous attack" and "will remain a steadfast partner" to Mali and other countries in the region as they battle terrorism.

One Senegalese guest, Aissatou Gueye, was in her room when the attackers entered. Like many other guests, she was there to attend a large mining conference.

"They were asking people to recite the Koran, and if they do, nothing will happen to them," she told a reporter outside the hotel. Gueye saw one person shot dead before she ran to safety.

Others who escaped included crews from Turkish Airlines and Air France, the companies said.

A member of a U.S. Special Operations unit helped to escort guests evacuated from the hotel, the Pentagon said. About 22 U.S. Defense Department personnel were in Bamako when the hotel was attacked.

U.N. peacekeepers helped secure the perimeter, provide medical aid and help in forensics, said the spokesman Dujarric.

Authorities drew no direct links to last week's terrorist attacks in Paris. But Mali -- home to the famous ancient city of Timbuktu -- has been at the center of a French-backed effort to drive back Islamist rebels who once controlled large portions the country.

Security had been reinforced in Bamako -- specifically around locations popular with foreigners, including the Radisson -- after the Paris attacks, Traore said.

He added that the attackers entered the hotel through a side entrance, "which makes us believe that they were familiar with the hotel."

Malian army commander Modibo Nama Traore said gunmen stormed the hotel shouting "Allahu akbar" -- "God is great" in Arabic -- and then fired on guards and began taking hostages.

Radical Islamists with ties to al-Qaeda have been active in Mali for years, occupying the northern part of the country for much of 2012. Even after they were forced out by a French-led military operation, militants have mounted occasional attacks, including earlier this year on a hotel in central Mali and a military base in the south.

The Islamic State, meanwhile, has sought to expand its presence across North Africa and beyond through alliances with militant factions. But the Islamic State does not have significant footholds in West Africa.

Foreigners are often targeted in Mali. Yet militants had never before seized a target as prominent as the 190-room Radisson Blu, where foreign businessmen and diplomats are known to stay and dine.

Earlier this month -- before the rampage in Paris -- the leader of Ansar Dine, one of Mali's main Islamist groups, released a statement encouraging attacks that would "push away the aggression of the French Crusader assailant" in the former French colony.

A contingent of French troops is stationed in Mali, and President François Hollande on Thursday praised the campaign against the Islamist insurgents.

"France is leading this war with its armed forced, its soldiers, its courage. It must carry out this war with its allies, its partners giving us all the means available, as we did in Mali, as we are going to continue in Iraq, as we will continue in Syria," he said.

The U.N. mission in Mali said it was "currently supporting Malian authorities and providing a security reinforcement while also deploying medical facilities in the area." Over the past three years, the U.N. mission in Mali has been the most dangerous in the world, with at least 53 members killed.

One of the rescued hostages, popular Guinean singer Sékouba "Bambino" Diabate, told reporters that he hid under his bed and heard two assailants speaking in English as they searched an adjacent room.

"I stayed still, hidden under the bed, not making a noise," he said. "I heard them say in English, 'Did you load it? Let's go.'"

Extremist violence has hit Mali repeatedly.

In March, attackers reportedly shouting "Allahu akbar" fired on a popular bar in Bamako. Three Malian civilians were killed, along with a Belgian security officer working for the European Union and a French national.

Two months ago, more than a dozen people -- including five U.N. contractors -- were killed in a 24-hour hostage siege at a hotel in Sevare in central Mali. Responsibility for that attack was claimed by al-Mourabitoun, led by Algerian jihadist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

Belmokhtar, an infamous one-eyed militant, had also orchestrated the bloody seizure of an Algerian gas facility in 2013, where at least 100 workers were held hostage and dozens were killed. He was targeted in a U.S. airstrike in June in Libya, and Libyan authorities said he was killed. But the Islamist group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb rejected that claim.

[Source: By Kodji Siby, Kevin Sieff and Brian Murphy, The Washington Post, Bamako, 20Nov15]

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