Burkina Faso security forces have freed more than 120 hostages from a hotel seized by al-Qaida-linked fighters in the capital of Ouagadougou, but a second assault has begun at another hotel nearby, according to reports.
“The attacks on the Splendid hotel and the Cappuccino [cafe] are over. But an assault is ongoing at the Hotel Yibi,” Simon Compaore, the country’s security minister, told Agence France-Presse.
Compaore had previously said troops were searching nearby buildings to ensure no extremists were in hiding. Twenty-two people had been confirmed dead, but the toll could rise further as security forces continue their search for casualties.
“We don’t yet have a total tally of the dead. The Burkinabe forces are still combing the hotel,” the minister said.
A total of 126 people, including at least 33 wounded, had been freed, he said. Four jihadists, including an Arab and two black Africans had also been killed.
Islamist extremists invaded the Splendid hotel and the Cappuccino cafe late on Friday night. The militants took control of the five-storey hotel, which is popular with UN staff and foreigners, burning cars outside and firing in the air to drive back crowds.
Security forces freed at least 60 hostages when they first stormed the building, with commandos continuing to fight a floor-by-floor battle with the gunmen several hours after the initial attack.
“It was horrible, people were sleeping and there was blood everywhere,” said Yannick Sawadogo, one of those who escaped. “They were firing at people at close range. We heard them speaking and they were walking around people and firing at people who were not dead. And when they came out they started a fire.”
Dozens of French forces arrived overnight from neighbouring Mali to aid in the rescue. One member of the US military was embedded with the French forces at the scene, and the US was working to provide France with surveillance and reconnaissance help, according to a US senior defence official.
The source told Associated Press that there were about 75 US troops in Burkina Faso: 15 assigned to the embassy and about 60 assisting the French military.
An al-Qaida affiliate known as AQIM, or al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, claimed responsibility during the attack, saying it was “revenge against France and the disbelieving west”, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.
The attackers were members of the Al-Murabitoun group based in Mali and run by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, SITE said.
In a message posted in Arabic on the militants’ “Muslim Africa” Telegram account, it said fighters “broke into a restaurant of one of the biggest hotels in the capital of Burkina Faso, and are now entrenched and the clashes are continuing with the enemies of the religion”.
Fighters who spoke by phone later “asserted the fall of many dead crusaders”, AQIM said, according to SITE.
The French embassy said on its website that a “terrorist attack” was under way and urged people to avoid the area. The French president, François Hollande condemned the assault as an “odious and cowardly attack”.
It follows a raid on a hotel in neighbouring Mali last November, in which 20 people died, including 14 foreigners, an attack claimed by the same al-Qaida affiliate behind the unfolding Ouagadougou assault.
One witness told Associated Press he saw four men attack the hotel and neighbouring cafe at about 7.30pm. Another witness said that when security forces arrived, they turned around rather than confronting the attackers.
Vital Nounayon, a waiter at a restaurant across the street from the hotel, said: “We had just opened and there were a few customers we started to serve when we heard gunshots … There were three men shooting in the air.
“Lots of people left their cars and motorcycles and ran. The attackers set fire to the vehicles. They also fired on the Cappuccino cafe across from the hotel before setting it on fire,” he said, adding that the attackers wore turbans.
Robert Sangare, the director of Ouagadougou’s university hospital centre, said: “We have received around 15 wounded people. There are people with bullet wounds and people who are injured because of falls.”
He said the patients had told him they had seen around 20 bodies in the hotel.
France’s ambassador to the country said a curfew had been put in place in Ouagadougou from 11pm to 6am. Gilles Thibault said on his Twitter account that the embassy had set up a crisis unit for its citizens. More than 3,500 French nationals live in the former colony, according to foreign ministry data.
The hotel is sometimes used by French troops with Operation Barkhane, a force based in Chad and set up to combat Islamic militants across Africa’s vast, arid Sahel region.
It is understood to be the first time militants have targeted Ouagadougou.
In December, a senior member of AQIM had called for Muslims in several countries, including Burkina Faso, to wage jihad.
The largely Muslim country has been in turmoil since its longtime president was ousted in a popular uprising in late 2014. Last September members of a presidential guard launched a coup that lasted about a week. The transitional government returned to power until Burkina Faso’s November election ushered in new leaders.
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