Mali hotel attack: Gunmen barged in, shot at ‘anything that moved’

Story highlights

NEW: An American who survived the deadly attack describes her harrowing experience

An Israeli who advised Mali's government is among the dead, his family says

Mali declares a state of emergency

CNN  — 

Gunmen who raided a Malian hotel shouted “Allahu akbar” as they sprayed bullets on tables of people who were gathered for breakfast, a witness said.

The attackers did not say a word to anyone as they opened fire Friday morning, employee Tamba Couye said.

They shot at “anything that moved” as terrified patrons dashed for cover all over the hotel, he said.

By the time Malian and U.N. security forces rushed in and ended the siege hours later, bodies were scattered across the floors of the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako.

At least 22 people were killed in the attack, the U.N. mission in Mali said in a statement Sunday.

Two attackers died, but it’s unclear whether security forces killed them or whether they blew themselves up, mission spokesman Olivier Salgado said.

Employee: They shot at everyone

Couye was at the restaurant when attackers barged in.

“They started firing at the tables,” he said. “They walked through the hotel door and started to shoot at everybody. Then they returned to the restaurant and closed its doors.”

He hurriedly evacuated employees through an exit door as chaos erupted.

“One of the attackers was yelling ‘Allahu akbar!’ ” he said.

“These people started shooting. They were shooting at everybody without asking a single question. They were shooting at anything that moved,” Tamba Couye said of the attack at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako.

The United Nations said two or three gunmen attacked the hotel.

‘I saw … bullets’

Michael Skapoullis said he was using the hotel’s gym when he noticed fellow exercisers leaving. Though he was listening to music and hadn’t heard anything, he followed.

He walked to a door leading to the hotel lobby, and knew something was wrong.

“When I opened the door, I saw, on the floor, bullets,” he said. “So I gently closed the door.”

He fled back to the gym and eventually left the hotel using a side door.

Kathie Fazekas was getting ready to check out of the hotel when the attack began. As gunshots went off, the American specialist for the Centers for Disease Control barricaded herself inside a room and wrote her husband an email.

“There are shooters down the hallway,” she told him, “and I want you to know that if I don’t make it, that I love you and my family and my CDC. But I am coming home.”

Peace talks

The hotel was hosting delegations attending peace talks. The former French colony has been battling Islamist extremists with the help of U.N. and French forces.

About 140 guests and 30 employees were there when the attack began, the Radisson chain said.

The hotel in an upscale neighborhood in Bamako is a hub for international guests, and is a 15-minute drive from the main international airport.

Mali has declared a 10-day state of emergency and three days of national mourning, during which flags will be flown at half-staff.

Claims of responsibility

Regional news agencies pointed fingers at two groups.

Islamist militant group Al Mourabitoun claimed it carried out the attack together with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, according to the Al Akhbar news agency.

Al Mourabitoun said the attack was carried out in retaliation for government aggression in northern Mali, Al Akhbar reported. The group also demanded the release of prisoners in France.

Algerian jihadist and the leader of the group, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is “probably” behind the attack, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in an interview on France’s TF1, but the French are not “entirely sure.”

Belmokhtar was the target of a June U.S. airstrike in Libya. Libyan officials said he had been killed but U.S. officials never confirmed his death publicly.

Why was the hotel targeted?

Mongi Hamdi, head of the U.N. mission in Mali, said the diplomats’ meetings, which began Thursday, were a possible reason for the attack.

“I think this attack has been perpetrated by negative forces, terrorists, who do not want to see peace in Mali,” Hamdi said.

Speaking in Malaysia, Obama said that thanks to the swift action of Malian and other security forces, lives were saved. He said the victims were “innocent people who had everything to live for.”

Mali’s struggle for stability

Mali has struggled with instability and Islamist extremists for years.

Taking advantage of a chaotic situation after a military coup in March 2012, Islamist extremists with links to al Qaeda carved out a large portion of northern Mali for themselves. When the militants tried to push into the south, France, at the Malian government’s request, sent thousands of troops in 2013.

At the Malian government’s request, France sent thousands of troops in 2013 to help push out the militants. The United Nations also established a peacekeeping mission to keep the government secure enough to continue a peace process.

Though military pressure largely drove Islamist militants from cities, they have regrouped in the desert areas, said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.

“Unfortunately, this (hotel) is a likely target” because it is popular with international guests such as U.N. workers, Pham said.

The attack comes just a day after Hollande praised his troops for successfully fighting Islamists in the former French colony. It also comes a week after France suffered its own high-profile terror attack: Shootings and suicide bombings, claimed by the terror group ISIS, that killed 130 people in and near Paris.

Diplomats, airline employees were at hotel

As news of the attack spread, media outlets and officials from a number of nations reported that some of their citizens were in the hotel or had been freed. A summary:

Six Russian nationals “were gunned down together with 13 [others] in the hotel restaurant in the first moments of the terror attack,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said Saturday in a statement. Six other Russians were freed.

Three Chinese nationals were also killed, the Chinese Embassy in Bamako told state media.

The family of Shmuel Ben Halal, a 60-year-old Israeli who worked as an educational adviser for Mali’s government, said he died as well.

And U.S. citizen Anita Datar died in the attacks, her brother Sanjeev Datar said. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton – who had Datar’s former partner as one of her senior policy advisers when she was in the Senate – remembered her as “the loving mother of a wonderful 7-year-old boy” and “a bright light who gave help and hope to people in need around the world.”

• Geoffrey Dieudonne, an administrative counselor for Belgium’s Parliament, died as a result of the attack, Parliament said. Details about his death weren’t immediately clear; he was in Bamako as part of a three-day French-language convention.

“We are devastated,” said Michaelle Jean, secretary-general of La Francophonie, an organization planning events on diversity and cultural expression as well as governance at the Bamako hotel. “We salute [Dieudonne’s] courage, strength of conviction [and] determination.”

August attack

Friday’s attack comes about three months after 12 people, including five Malian soldiers, were killed in a hostage situation and ensuing battle at a hotel in Sevare in central Mali in August.

The soldiers stormed the hotel to end a daylong siege that started when gunmen raided the hotel after attacking a military site nearby, witnesses said.

At the time, the Malian army said the attackers were affiliated with the Macina Liberation Movement. Human Rights Watch has described the group as Islamists who commit “serious abuses in the course of military operations against Mali’s security forces.”

CNN’s David McKenzie, Radina Gigova, Steve Almasy, Jason Hanna, Ross Levitt, Christian Purefoy, Nima Elbagir, Pierre Meilhan, Kevin Wang, Archith Seshadri, Chris Liakos, Zain Asher and Ashleigh Banfield contributed to this report.