At least eight people, including five soldiers and three gunmen, were killed Friday in a siege at a hotel in the Malian town of Sevare, where the attackers have also taken a number of hostages, the Malian army said.
Attackers stormed the Byblos hotel early on Friday in what military sources and local residents said appeared to be an attempt to kidnap Western hotel guests.
The hotel is reportedly popular with troops from the MINUSMA force (the UN Stabilization Mission in Mali). FRANCE 24 correspondent Ahmed El Kori in Bamako said that Ukrainian pilots from the force were present at the hotel when it was attacked.
The UN mission said that at least one of its members had been killed. "Reports indicate that a member of the international personnel associated with MINUSMA was killed during the attack," it said in a statement, without revealing the victim's nationality.
A Ukrainian hostage who escaped late on Friday said that three South Africans and a Russian remained inside the hotel, according to the military.
Earlier reports said a French national was also inside the hotel, according to Malian military spokesman Souleymane Dembele, while the Russian embassy has confirmed that at least one Russian citizen is being held.
"It is a hostage-taking," another military source said, adding that two of the troops surrounding the Byblos hotel had been killed and another three injured.
A man wearing an explosives belt was shot dead, the source said, while the body of a white man was lying outside the hotel.
"It is still not over," the source added.
Smoke rose from the hotel and heavy weapons fire was heard as government forces moved in to dislodge the gunmen, who raided the hotel near the airport in Sevare, around 600 kms (400 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako, before 8am (GMT).
Malian troops were surrounding the hotel after what may have been an attempt to kidnap Western guests, the military sources said.
"The Fama (Malian armed forces) have sealed off the area... and the operation is still going on," one military source told AFP from Gao, the main town in northern Mali.
A body could be seen lying sprawled in front of the hotel, the source added.
It is the third assault in just a week in the West African country, which is still struggling to restore stability despite a landmark peace deal agreed in June to end years of unrest, ethnic divisions and jihadist attacks, particularly in the north.
One resident said she had been woken early Friday by the sound of gunfire and was hiding out at her home with her family.
"The shooting is still going on but I don't know who is shooting," she told AFP.
Initial reports said the assault targeted another hotel, the Debo, but the military source in Gao said it was the Byblos that had come under attack.
"The army is trying to find [the attackers] and remove them," a Mali army official told AFP from the capital Bamako, adding that the operation was delicate because of the presence of guests in the hotel.
"We still don't know if the terrorists have been arrested. According to our information, they tried to kidnap Westerners but they didn't succeed," said another local resident contacted by phone by AFP.
A number of foreigners have been kidnapped by Islamist militants in Mali in recent years and at least two are still being held hostage by al Qaeda's front group in the region.
Friday's assault also came just days after 11 Malian soldiers were killed on Monday in an attack on their camp in the Timbuktu region claimed by al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM).
Another two were killed in an ambush on Saturday near the border with Mauritania.
AQIM was among several jihadist groups that took control of Mali's north in 2012 before being ousted by a French-led military operation launched in January 2013.
Spreading jihadist attacks
Sevare lies near the main regional town of Mopti, a key staging post to the vast north of Mali that lies more than 640 kilometres (400 miles) northeast of Bamako.
Jihadist attacks have long been concentrated in Mali's north, but began spreading at the beginning of the year to the centre of the country, and in June to the south near the borders with Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.
The United Nations maintains a mission in Mali with a force of more than 10,200 while former colonial master France has 1,350 soldiers on the ground.
Among those taken hostage in Mali, South African Stephen Malcolm McGowan and Swede Johan Gustafson were abducted in Timbuktu in November 2011 and have been held since by AQIM.
A Dutch hostage kidnapped with the pair was rescued in April in a raid by French special forces.
In June, AQIM released footage of a jihadist with an English accent parading the two hostages.
French hostage Serge Lazarevic was freed in December last year after three years in the hands of Islamist militants in Mali.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)
Date created : 2015-08-07