At least 20 people died and others were taken hostage when suspected Islamist gunmen stormed a hotel in the capital of Burkina Faso and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has claimed responsibility.
Security forces began an assault to reclaim the Splendid Hotel in the early hours of Saturday and entered its lobby, part of which was on fire, said a witness, who later saw them enter the hotels upper floors amid bursts of gunfire.
The hotel is frequented by Westerners, which may have made it a target for the militants.
About 30 hostages including the labor minister were freed while around 33 people have been taken to hospital with injuries, said Minister of Communications Remis Dandjinou. No one has said publicly how many people might be in the hotel.
The Friday evening attack was the first time militants have assaulted the capital of Burkina Faso and comes as a setback to efforts by African governments, France and the United States to prevent attacks that have destabilized the region.
It follows a raid on a luxury hotel in Mali last November in which two attackers killed 20 people, including citizens of Russia, China and the United States. There have been many attacks by militants in other countries in West Africa in recent years and the vast majority of those killed have been Africans.
Robert Sangare, director of Ouagadougou’s university hospital center, said that among an initial 15 people brought to hospital some had bullet wounds while others had injuries from falls.
The doctor spoke to patients who had seen around 20 bodies, and one European woman being treated at the hospital said the attackers appeared to target Westerners, said Sangare, who had spoken to the patients.
Burkina Faso’s fire brigade saw around 10 bodies on the terrace of the Cappuccino cafe opposite the hotel, the Interior Minister told Reuters. It was not immediately clear how many people were in the hotel and restaurant when the attack began.
The hotel is sometimes used by French troops with Operation Barkhane, a force based in Chad and set up to combat Islamist militants across West Africa’s vast, arid Sahel region. Burkinabe and French forces were working together to retake the hotel, the minister of communications said.
A U.S. defense official said France, the former colonial power, had requested U.S. intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance support in the city, and at least one U.S. military member in Burkina Faso was giving “advice and assistance” to French forces at the hotel.
France normally has up to 200 special forces troops in the country.