Investigators in Mali were on Saturday hunting at least three people suspected of links to the jihadist siege at a luxury hotel in the capital that left at least 19 people dead.
The government has declared a state of emergency after the bloody nine-hour hostage-taking at the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako on Friday, exactly a week after the Paris massacre.
The Al-Murabitoun group, an Al-Qaeda affiliate led by notorious one-eyed Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, nicknamed the “Uncatchable” or “Mr Marlboro”, claimed the attack.
Gunmen went on the rampage through the hotel from the early morning, shooting in the corridors and taking 170 guests and staff hostage, many of them foreigners.
The assault, which ended when Malian and international troops stormed the hotel, left 19 people dead as well as two attackers, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said.
The victims included several Russians, three Chinese, two Belgians, an American and a Senegalese.
A Malian military source had said earlier there were at least 27 dead, while at least “three terrorists had been killed or blown themselves up.”
Authorities are now “actively pursuing” at least three people over the attack in the former French colony, one security source told AFP.
– ‘Terror will not win’ –
Keita is due to visit the site of the carnage on Saturday as Mali prepares to begin three days of national mourning on Monday.
“Terror will not win,” Keita said in a televised address. “Long live Mali.”
A security cordon remained in place around the Radisson and security was also boosted around public buildings and banks and other hotels.
The attack came as fears mount over terrorist threats a week after 130 people died in the devastating Paris attacks claimed by the Islamic State group, which also said it had downed a Russian passenger jet in Egypt on October 31.
US President Barack Obama and his Russian and Chinese counterparts Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping all condemned the attack.
“This barbarity only stiffens our resolve to meet this challenge,” Obama said of the global terrorist threat.
Mali has been torn apart by unrest since the north fell under the control of jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda in 2012.
The Islamists were largely ousted by a French-led military operation launched the following year, but large swathes of Mali remain lawless.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also condemned Friday’s “horrific terrorist attack,” suggesting the violence was aimed at destroying peace efforts in the country.
– Dramatic rescue –
The assault began around 0700 GMT on Friday, when gunmen pulled up at the hotel and starting shooting their way inside, taking guests and staff hostage.
Malian television broadcast chaotic scenes from inside the building as police and other security personnel ushered bewildered guests along corridors to safety.
Special forces — including Malian, French and two US soldiers who were also in the area — staged a dramatic floor-by-floor rescue, ending the siege after about nine hours.
In an audio recording broadcast by Al-Jazeera television, Belmokhtar’s group claimed responsibility, saying it had worked with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Belmokhtar, one of the world’s most wanted men, was indeed “likely” the brains behind the assault.
The jihadist is also accused of spearheading an attack on an Algerian gas plant in 2013 in which around 40 hostages were killed, most of them Westerners.
– Attackers ‘spoke English’ –
The palatial 190-room Radisson, regarded as one of west Africa’s best hotels, is a favourite with entrepreneurs, tourists and government officials from across the world.
Guinean singer Sekouba Bambino Diabate, who was among the survivors, told AFP the gunmen spoke English among themselves.
“They were firing inside the hotel, in the corridors,” Diabate said.
France has more than 1,000 troops in its former colony, a key battleground of the Barkhane counter-terror mission spanning five countries in Africa’s restive Sahel region.
The attack follows a hotel siege in August in the central Mali town of Sevare in which five UN workers and four soldiers were killed.
Five people, including a French citizen and a Belgian, were also killed in an assault on a Bamako restaurant in March, the first of its kind in the capital.