Suspected Islamist gunmen stormed a hotel used by U.N. peacekeeping personnel in Mali on Friday, initiating a deadly day-long standoff with troops in a nation facing escalating attacks by militants.
Officials said at least two extremists and five soldiers had been killed. The government said its forces had detained seven suspected militants.
Troops surrounded the hotel in Sevare, about 370 miles northeast of the capital of Bamako, and exchanged gunfire with the attackers after an apparent bid to seize hostages there. The militants had grabbed at least six people at the Byblos hotel, Lt. Col. Diarran Kone told the Associated Press.
The country’s peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA, said Friday that a U.N. worker was among those killed. It did not provide a nationality or identification.
“The operation to free the hostages is ongoing,” Kone said Friday evening.
The Russian Embassy in Mali said a Russian citizen was among those being held, and the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry stated Friday that a Ukrainian may also be among the hostages.
“In addition, three citizens of South Africa and a French citizen may be held hostage,” the ministry stated.
Nelson Kgwete, a spokesman for South Africa’s Foreign Ministry, said South African diplomats in Mali had been instructed to “liaise with the authorities in the region” to ascertain whether South African citizens were caught up in the attack, the AP reported.
Mali’s government and the U.N. mission in Mali both condemned the attack.
“The Government of the Republic of Mali condemns in the strongest terms this cowardly and barbaric attack against the peaceful citizens of Mali and friends present on the national territory,” it said.
A loose coalition of tribal rebels and militants with links to al-Qaeda took control of large areas of Mali in 2012 before being driven back by a French-led military force.
Islamist militants carry out regular attacks against local and foreign troops in Mali.
On Monday, a regional militant group known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb asserted responsibility for an assault on a base that killed 11 Malian soldiers in the central Timbuktu region.
Other attacks and kidnappings for ransom are staged by rival Islamist factions, including a group known as Ansar Dine that once controlled Timbuktu.
Sevare and the nearby town of Mopti in central Mali have long been the heart of the country’s tourism industry. They had been spared from attacks that have become more common in the towns of Gao and Timbuktu, farther to the north.