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Sunday, 22 November 2015





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Mali’s 10-hour siege

27 including five attackers dead in biggest hostage standoff:

Soldiers in Mali’s capital shot their way into a Radisson Blu hotel and liberated dozens of captives after a 10-hour siege by Islamist gunmen that left 27 people dead, including five attackers, ending one of the biggest hostage standoffs in recent years.

Troops from France—the former colonial power—and United Nations peacekeepers blocked roads while Malian soldiers with Kalashnikov rifles fought their way to the top floor of the seven-story hotel in Bamako. Inside, five gunmen had been holding 170 hostages. Several hours earlier, the gunmen—who witnesses said chanted “Allahu akbar” as they burst into the hotel around dawn—released 30 hostages who said they successfully recited the Islamic profession of faith.

Malian military officials confirmed the death toll Friday evening (20) without identifying the other 22 people killed.

“When the terrorists understood that we were coming for them, they executed the hostages in their possession,” said one soldier. Next to him, another soldier had tears streaming down his face. “He just lost his friend,” the first soldier said.

It remained unclear who conducted the attack. Early on, officials feared it was the work of Islamic State allies looking to strike French interests, a week after the group killed 130 people in Paris. But those fears didn’t appear to be borne out by early evidence, and Islamic State made no claim of responsibility.

Own groups

Mali has some half-dozen Islamist groups. For three years, al Qaeda allies here have been waging smaller assaults on police and soldiers on a monthly basis, alongside threats of worse to come.

Last week, Mali’s most prominent Islamist commander, Iyad Ag Ghaly, called for attacks on French targets, and the Radisson, used by French officials, seems in keeping with that. Linked to al Qaeda, he is on the State Department’s list of specially designated global terrorists. Several al Qaeda-linked accounts on Twitter cheered Friday’s attack as a success.

All told, Friday’s siege underscored how vast and complex the fight against Islamist terrorism has become, stretching from the Middle East to the capitals of Europe to this expansive, troubled country in the West of the Sahara.

“This is the attack that we’ve all been waiting for the last two years. Everybody who follows Mali has been surprised that this hasn’t happened before,” said Andrew Lebovich, visiting fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations. “You have so many various groups trying to make their day in the sun. We’ll continue to have these attacks.”

For France, the hotel raid spotlights how stretched the country’s military has become in what President François Hollande called a “war with jihadist terrorism that threatens the whole world.”

Mali, like Syria today, was once the focus of French counterterrorism attention. In 2013, some 3,000 French troops arrived here to chase down al Qaeda militants. Since then, France has been drawn in elsewhere. Its troops are in Chad and Niger, trying to help Nigeria battle Boko Haram. They are in Central African Republic, attempting to mediate a peace between Christians and Muslims. This past week, French aircraft were striking Islamic State positions in Syria.Mali, meanwhile, has become a bit of a forgotten front—and a more dangerous nation. Attacks on UN personnel here have made this the United Nations’ deadliest peacekeeping mission. Judging by a regular stream of terrorist threats, civilians seem increasingly fair game, too.

“I’ve already told our people, without scaring them, that they should just get a little bit used to this,” President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said. “Nobody nowhere is safe.”

Friday’s attack began around 6 am. local time when gunmen carjacked a diplomatic SUV approaching the Radisson, a military official said. After driving through the hotel gate, the gunmen released the driver, shot a security guard and stormed the hotel, witnesses said. By 11 am, the hotel was surrounded by about 20 French soldiers and more than 100 UN peacekeepers and Malian troops. Tanks and armored cars blocked the roads. A French jet fighter screeched overhead, breaking the otherwise eerie silence of a tense standoff.

Amadou Keita, a driver for the Acte Sept cultural center across the street, was holed up with three colleagues: “We want to find a way to leave and go home,” he said.

By afternoon, the president had cut short a trip to nearby Chad and flew home.

Fear psychosis

Hollande began regular contacts with Malian authorities. Most French troops in Mali had been deployed in the desert hundreds of miles north, but the French Interior Ministry sent French Special Forces to Bamako.

“With the means we have in the area, we will do what is possible to obtain the freedom of the hostages,” Hollande said during the standoff. “Once again, terrorists want to mark with their barbaric presence all places where they can kill or massacre.”

As the afternoon dragged on, the sound of gunfire accelerated. The sound of small explosions, like grenades, came from inside. By the time the siege ended, the hotel walls were pocked with bullet holes and bodies lay strewed about. Ambulances lined up to pick up the dead.

Air France announced it was cancelling flights to Bamako on the 20th.

US aircraft have conducted more than 730 airlift supply and refueling missions in support of French military operations in Mali since January 2013, according to the Defense Department. Of the 26 US military and civilian military personnel in Mali, 10 are providing planning and coordination support to the UN mission. The remaining 16 personnel were attending a UN event or assigned to the US Embassy in Bamako, the Pentagon said.

The security situation in the region—including the threat posed by Boko Haram, al Qaeda affiliates and a growing Islamic State presence in Libya—has triggered particular interest by US policy makers.

The US military has deployed special operations forces training teams to countries such as Mali, Mauritania and others for a range of military exercises. The Pentagon also has established drone bases in the region, including one announced this fall in Cameroon, and is seeking bases for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and possibly other operations.

-Wall Street Journal


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