Bamako (dpa) – All the 170 hostages held by Islamists at the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako have been released or escaped.
“There are no more hostages with [the attackers],” Internal Security Minister Salif Traore said, adding that the hostage-takers remained holed up at the hotel.
Malian special forces have stormed the hotel.
Traore said the hostage drama had claimed three lives. They were believed to be security guards shot by the attackers on entering the hotel.
Some reports, however, spoke of a higher death toll.
The Islamist group al-Mourabitoun claimed the attack.
The Rezidor Hotel Group, which operates the Radisson Blu, said initially that the attackers had taken 140 guests and 30 employees hostage.
Traore told RFI that two police officers were injured as special forces stormed the building.
“Our forces are moving forward inside the hotel,” Traore said, adding they were searching the rooms.
Traore said later at a press conference that the hostages had included 45 Malians, 15 US citizens as well as nationals of Ivory Coast, Turkey, Algeria, Russia, Spain, Canada, Germany, Togo and China.
A White House official earlier said “US citizens might be present at the hotel.” China’s official Xinhua news agency reported that 10 Chinese nationals were taken hostage. Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vikas Swarup wrote on Twitter that 20 Indians were staying in the hotel.
A police source said that some hostages were released after they proved they were Muslims by reciting Islamic verses.
Others were reported to be hotel employees who escaped through emergency exits.
One Chinese hotel guest told Xinhua via mobile chat app WeChat: “Around 6:30 in the morning, I heard multiple gunshots outside my room, and there was smoke in the hotel corridor and my room. The internet connection was unstable and phone calls to the reception went unanswered.”
A small team of US Special Operations Forces were helping with hostage rescue efforts in Mali, US Africa Command confirms on Twitter.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian posts on Twitter: “Upon request from the Malian authorities, I have decided to send a detachment of special French forces to Bamako.”
French President Francois Hollande said: “I have assured [Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita] that France is available to offer the necessary support to the forces of his country.”
“An assault has been launched and we will help ensure with all our means on site that the release of the hostages can be achieved,” he said in Paris. “We have to, once again, keep going and show our solidarity with a country that is a friend, Mali.”
Radio France Internationale said the attackers shouted “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great” in Arabic.
The groups claiming the attack were al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Mourabitoun, according to the al-Akhbar news site in Mauritania, which has previously received statements from extremist groups in the region.
Al-Mourabitoun is the organization of Mokhtar Belmokhtar. A target of Western airstrikes, it remains unclear if the Algerian is still alive.
A group of men had driven to the hotel in a car with diplomatic plates, while others came on foot, hotel security sources and national television said.
The attackers entered the building and went up to a higher floor, hotel security sources said. They forced a door open and shots were heard.
Radisson Blu is popular among Westerners, including Air France staff.
Islamist violence usually affects Mali’s north, which has been volatile since separatist rebels and later al-Qaeda-affiliated militants took control of the region after a 2012 military coup.
French and African military operations dispersed the militants and restored government control over the area. Clashes between rebels and the army persist in some places.