Gunmen stormed the Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali’s capital of Bamako around 07:00 GMT and took 170 people hostage. At least three deaths were reported.
There is said to between two and ten attackers armed with AK-47s. The terrorists arrived at the U.S. luxury hotel in a vehicle or vehicles with diplomatic plates, said Olivier Saldago, a spokesman for the United Nations mission in Mali.
As the gunmen entered the hotel they fired of rounds and shouted “God is great!” in Arabic. The armed men locked about 140 guests and 30 employees at the Radisson Blu, said U.S. Rezidor Hotel Group, which owns the hotel.
There has since been a floor-by-floor rescue operation by Malian soldiers, with help from U.N. troops. They were able to free 80 hostages as of noon.
“They were in car with a diplomatic license plate. They were masked. At the gate of the hotel, the guard stopped them and they start firing. We fled,” the hotel’s gardener said. “They injured three security guards who were at the gate of the hotel,” another witness said.
“I woke up with the sounds of gunshots and for me it sounded like small bandits,” popular Guinean singer Sekouba Bambino said. “After 20 or 30 minutes, I realized these are not just petty criminals.”
The hotel is popular with foreign businesses and airline crews. Air France said that 12 of their crew was staying there but have been successfully freed in the rescue operation. Among the other guests staying at the hotel include six Turkish Airlines staff, 20 Indian nationals and reports of up to 10 Chinese citizens.
Two Malian nationals and a French national have died in the attacks, a U.N. official said.
Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has cut short a trip to a regional summit in Chad to tend to the horrific attack.
French president Francois Hollande commented on the terrifying situation, “We should yet again stand firm and show our solidarity with a friendly country, Mali.”
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the incident.
A security source told Reuters that some hostages who were able to recite verses of the Koran were being freed.
The attack comes just days after Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of the Islamist militant group Ansar Dine, called for attacks on France and their interests in Mali.
U.N. forces took over responsibility for security in Mali from French and African troops in July 2013, after the main towns in the north had been recaptured from the Islamist militants.
Mali is located in West Africa and is the eighth-largest country in Africa. Mali was under French control from 1905 until it gained their independence on June 20, 1960.