The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mali’s president declares state of emergency after deadly hotel attack

On most weekends, every table at the Canoe Club, a stylish riverside bistro and bar, is reserved long in advance. Western diplomats and United Nations staffers rub elbows with Malian officials and business travelers late into the evening, noshing on paella or pizza and enjoying French wine and champagne.

On Saturday, a day after terrorists invaded the luxury Radisson Blu hotel in this poor West African capital, taking 130 people hostage and leaving 21 dead, the Canoe Club was deserted. Idle waiters repolished glasses or refolded linen napkins. Patrick Aleine, the chef and co-owner, sat at the empty bar in a despondent funk.

“This is a disaster,” he said, speaking in French. “We have always tried to make foreigners feel at ease and secure here, and we are always full. Today, there is not a single customer. Tomorrow, there is not a single table reserved. I am staying open for now, but if the foreigners don’t start coming back, the Malians won’t come either. Then we will be finished.”

On the surface, the crowded, hardscrabble city of nearly 2 million people appeared to return to normal with astonishing speed so soon after a horrific terrorist attack.

Motorbike traffic clogged the narrow streets and red-dirt alleys. Fishermen poled canoes on the Niger River, which divides the capital. Women with babies on their backs hung laundry outside tin shanties, sold baskets of fruit or ladled out rice and stew at lunch stands. Every few hours, the Muslim call to prayer echoed from mosques scattered across the city.

The Washington Post's Kevin Sieff talks about the extremist threat in West Africa and why the U.N. peace keeping missio there is now the agency's most dangerous (Video: Kevin Sieff and Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

In the morning, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita announced a 10-day state of emergency, giving security officials extra powers to enter homes without a warrant and to ban public rallies or marches. He also declared three days of national mourning, acting to tamp down public reaction to the violence. Police and army troops were stationed on many corners, and armored pickup trucks full of combat troops circled the Radisson Blu and other sensitive areas of the city.

Later, the president visited some victims of the hotel attack in a local hospital and toured the hotel, accompanied by Prime Minister Modibo Keita and surrounded by bodyguards. Camera crews, blocked from following them inside, peered at glass and debris strewn across the lobby floor. Amid the scrum, a group of grim-faced Western guests emerged with loads of baggage and were hustled into waiting SUVs by armed escorts, headed out of the country.

It’s not just the Islamic State. Other terror groups surge in West Africa.

From behind a police barricade, a crowd of young men watched the scene. Most said they were Muslim, as are 95 percent of Malians. They expressed anger and consternation at the attack, saying it was the act of terrorists who did not represent their religion. One violent regional jihadist group, the Mourabitounes, has claimed responsibility, and witnesses said that the attackers freed hostages who could recite the Koran.

“This is not good for us or for our country,” said Mainanto Mamdu, 21, a mechanic. “There is no meaning to what these terrorists are doing, but it seems they can do whatever they want.”

Nafila Dao, 23, who sells cellphones, said the threat of Islamist extremism is “everywhere now, and we cannot stop it. We were taught that Islam is tolerant of all religions and people. These people are just murderers.”

There was a jittery tone to every conversation and encounter, an uneasy chill beneath the routine commotion. Many people walked away nervously when asked about the hotel attack. Despite the new security measures, many people seemed to feel that their government was helpless to stop terrorism. Some worried that the close relationship Mali has long enjoyed with its European allies, especially France and Belgium, was at stake. The leader of the Mourabitounes has said that the group seeks to “rout” French interests from the region. In March, gunmen from the group attacked a French restaurant here, killing five people, including French and Belgian citizens.

Anita Datar, the only known American killed in Mali, was there to help

On Saturday, the minister of internal security and police told journalists that 21 people had died, including 18 hotel guests, and that seven had been wounded, including police officers. He said that 133 people had been evacuated from the hotel, but officials did not have a confirmed list of their names or nationalities.

According to numerous accounts, guests and visitors at the hotel Friday included Turkish, Indian, Belgian, American, French and Chinese citizens. Among other events taking place at the Radisson that day was a conference of a French-speaking association.

The only American known to have been killed in the hotel raid was Anita Ashok Datar, 41, a resident of Takoma Park, Md., and a longtime development specialist who had been working in Mali on health policy projects.

In an interview, Col. Salif Traore, the interior minister, described the atmosphere in Bamako on Saturday as “relatively calm, although you can never say the risk is zero. We have a permanent menace from terror groups, and this is a world menace. If they can hit France and the U.S., even hit Paris, it is impossible to totally protect Bamako.”

But Traore said the country is “facing an exceptional situation, and we must respond to it.” The state of emergency, he said, “will mean more liberty for the forces of order and somewhat less liberty for the citizens, but they understand that this is for their own protection.” He said that the 10-day measure could only be renewed by a vote of the national legislature.

How U.S. troops helped at the scene of the hostage standoff

A senior police official, whose squad was among the first to reach the besieged hotel Friday, said Mali and its international allies must work together to fight extremists. “We are facing a menace to all countries and all colors,” he said. “I have brave men and they stopped the guests from panicking, but we cannot defeat these groups with force. We have to go deeply into their mentality and their psyche.”

At the Canoe Club, Aleine said he was especially concerned about the terrorists’ ploy of easily entering the Radisson Blu compound in vehicles with diplomatic license plates. Until now, having international agency vehicles parked outside his restaurant has been a status symbol for the enterprising chef. Now, he worries, “if people see them, they will stay away.”

Kevin Sieff in Nairobi contributed to this report.

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