A U.S. citizen who worked at a USAID-funded project in Mali was among the nearly two-dozen people killed when gunmen attacked a hotel in the capital city of Bamako Friday. The U.S. State Department confirmed the death late Friday after an hours-long siege came to a close and Malian, French and U.S. special forces assisted some 130 hostages to safety.
About a dozen U.S. citizens were among those evacuated from the luxury hotel. Of those, half were assisted by two U.S. special forces near the hotel when the gunmen approached in a car with diplomatic plates, firing on guards and lobbing grenades while shouting “Allahu Akbar” before advancing through the hotel and into rooms. Malian state TV reported an initial group of some 80 hostages were able to escape the siege, which nearby security forces reportedly responded to quickly.
The al Qaeda-affiliated African jihadist group, al Mourabitoun, claimed responsibility for the attacks in a joint statement with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb on Friday, according to Reuters.
Al Mourabitoun is said to be based in Algeria, but has maintained a presence in northern Mali as well. The group had been led by the Algerian extremist Mokhtar Belmokhtar—aka “Belaouer the One-Eyed”—who is also believed to be the planner behind the 2013 attack on an Algerian natural gas plant that left 40 people dead. The Pentagon said it had killed Belmokhtar in June—which would have been the eighth time reports of his death have surfaced—but al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb denied the Pentagon’s claim.
Twenty-six U.S. troops were already in the region—22 in Bamako alone—assisting Malian and French forces who have been battling an insurgency in Mali for years. The U.S. helps the French with airlift, refueling, and intelligence and reconnaissance, U.S. Africa Command spokesman Army Col. Mark Cheadle said Friday in Washington. “Ten of these personnel are providing planning and coordination support to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali,” a Pentagon official said.
All of the 22 working in Bamako are safe, the Pentagon said Friday.
The State Department issued a travel warning on Mali in May, “especially warn[ing] against travel to the northern parts of the country and along the border with Mauritania because of ongoing military operations and threats of attacks and kidnappings targeting westerners,” it read. “Mali faces significant security challenges because of the presence in northern Mali of extremists and militant factions. The potential for attacks throughout the country, including in Bamako, remains.”