Hotel standoff in Mali ends,13 killed, 4 hostages freed

An unknown number of hostages was still being held in Mali by gunmen who stormed a hotel in the central town of Sevare

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Malian security forces on Saturday stormed a hotel used by United Nations staff and freed four hostages held there by suspected Islamist militants during a nearly 24-hour siege in which 13 people died.

The attack, far to the south of the Islamist militants' traditional desert strongholds, was the latest in what appears to be a growing campaign against Malian troops and U.N. personnel by remnants of an al Qaeda-linked insurgency.

"(The siege) seems to be over and it has ended well," said a Malian defence ministry spokesman, Colonel Diaran Koné. "We freed the four hostages. But unfortunately we also found three bodies at the site."

The gunmen had seized the Byblos Hotel in the town of Sevare, around 600 km (400 miles) northeast of the west African nation's capital Bamako, early on Friday and held off troops who quickly surrounded the building.

Three hostages died during the ordeal, Malian government spokesman Choguel Kokala Maiga said, adding that authorities were still attempting to confirm their nationalities.

Five soldiers and four gunmen, including one who officials earlier said was strapped with explosives, were also killed, he said. Seven suspects have been arrested in connection with the attack, according to a government statement released late on Friday.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry issued a statement based on information from its embassy in Algeria saying that the goal of the attackers was believed to be to take hostages from among the foreign citizens living in the hotel.

"According to the information available, a Ukrainian citizen may be among those foreign citizens taken hostage. In addition, three citizens of South Africa and a French citizen may be held hostage," it said.

AFP said that an Ukrainian citizen fled the standoff.

Northern Mali fell under the control of jihadists back in 2012 but a French-led offensive ousted them from power in early 2013. Remnants of the group have staged a number of attacks on U.N. peacekeepers and Malian forces though Friday's assault on a hotel known to be popular with U.N. pilots marks a serious escalation.

Sevare and the nearby town of Mopti in central Mali have long been the heart of the country's tourism industry and had been spared from the attacks more common in the northern towns of Gao and Timbuktu.

On Friday, smoke could be seen coming from the area near the hotels, according to a resident who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of his safety.

In March, a masked gunman opened fire at a restaurant popular with foreigners in Bamako, the capital, killing five people. In June, gunmen killed three soldiers in a village near the Mauritania border. The next day extremists briefly occupied a village near Ivory Coast. The extremist group Ansar Dine said it was behind those attacks.