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Special Forces Clash With Hostage-Takers In Mali Hotel


Bamako, the city where a hostage situation unfolded this morning is the capital of Mali in West Africa. It has a population of about 1.8 million, and it includes a upscale district of recent construction, which is where you can find an upscale chain hotel, the Radisson Blu. It's frequently used by people from India, China, Turkey, France and the United States. And it's believed that people from all those countries and perhaps more were in the hotel when gunmen walked in and took hostages today. And now we're told Mali's military has been trying to free them. Let's get the latest from NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton who covers West Africa. She's monitoring the story from London. And Ofeibea, what's the latest that you have?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Yet to confirm, Steve, and we're checking it out, but apparently a Malian official has told local television in Mali that the gunmen at the Radisson hotel are no longer holding any hostages. But Steve, that contradicts the hotel, which has been saying that most of the detainees are still trapped inside. And we have also been told that dozens have either been freed or have managed to escape. So it's confusion at the moment - exactly what's happening.

INSKEEP: And it's...

QUIST-ARCTON: That Malian special forces backed by French special forces are apparently going from floor to floor up to the seventh where these gunmen apparently have taken cover.

INSKEEP: So let's just make sure we sort this. There were 170 hostages. We know that - roughly 170 hostages. We know there was a military operation floor by floor to get them out. We know for sure that some, many, most were out. We can't be sure at this moment if all are out or if the operation is over. Is that basically what's known?

QUIST-ARCTON: It is, which is many, many, many questions. Apparently, the gunmen arrived early this morning in the compound, apparently with diplomatic license plates on their vehicle. Armed with guns and grenades, they forced their way inside, shouting Islamist slogans including Allahu Akbar, God is great. And unconfirmed, also, we're told that it's an - we're being told that it's an al-Qaida-linked group that is claiming responsibility - yet to be confirmed, Steve.


And Ofeibea, let me ask a question. This comes in a country, as we've been talking about earlier this morning, with a recent history of violent Islamist movements. So give us a backdrop, then, for this particular attack.

QUIST-ARCTON: A continuing history, I would say - let's roll back the clock to 2012. In March there was a coup d'etat, and that was because Tuareg separatists were calling for their own independent homeland. But very soon after, in northern Mali, where the Tuaregs come from, they allied themselves to al-Qaida-linked - a disparate group of Islamist militants who soon hijacked this separatist movement and literally occupied northern Mali, including Timbuktu, for almost a year until French troops - and French troops because Mali is a former French colony - launched an offensive which drove them out. They were moving from the North towards the center of the country, and apparently Mali asked the French to step in. But there has been insecurity, instability and continued hit-and-raid attacks since then.

INSKEEP: While mentioning that every bit of information we have now is provisional and subject to change in this situation, we have heard that some people are dead. Other people have been recovered safely, and, of course, there is special concern in this country for Americans who are believed to be in that hotel. We're going to talk about that with NPR's national security editor Phil Ewing, who's in our studios here in Washington. Phil, what are U.S. officials saying?

PHIL EWING, BYLINE: The latest we have is that there were seven Americans who were rescued from this hotel in Bamako. We don't know from the State or Defense Departments how many total Americans may have been in the hotel, so that's where our understanding stands right now.

INSKEEP: Are there any details beyond saying, rescued and that they are safe in some fashion?

EWING: Not that we know, but as we've been hearing all morning, it's a very fluid situation. And so we're working those sources very closely and watching the reports to see what we can learn.

INSKEEP: And would you remind us what role Western security agencies - Western militaries - in particular, the U.S. military - has been playing on this day?

EWING: Well, as we heard a little earlier, the French military had been pursuing a campaign against insurgents in the north of Mali, and the United States and other powers had been supporting that with cargo aircraft, with aerial refueling and with the use of drones to help the French surveil these French targets as well as intelligence support. So we understand from the Defense Department, there are about 25 American special operations troops in Bamako. They were involved with this operation, helping to get these Americans out and interact with them. But they're not, we understand, throwing in flash-bang grenades and pulling triggers on their rifles. They were not in a kinetic role, as the Pentagon likes to say.

INSKEEP: Nevertheless, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, having covered this region for so long, what does the presence of some American troops in Mali say about the level of concern the United States has had about terrorism in West Africa?

QUIST-ARCTON: And it's been for a very long time, Steve. This is nothing new. The fact that Mali had the occupation of the North was coming amongst problems that the U.S. saw in this Sahel region. This is a Sahara desert country that extremism and terrorism was taking over and people trafficking as well. So there have been concerns for a very long time. And, as I say, not just Mali - the fact that it may spread. Let's not forget Nigeria is - what? - six countries towards the east. Boko Haram, which has pledged allegiance to Islamic State - we were told that during the occupation of the North by these extremist groups that Boko Haram had its fighters there. So there is courting and flirting and coalition, although they're a disparate group. But, you know, comprehensively, they are able to make West Africa tremble.

MONTAGNE: And a bit earlier this morning, we reached Paul Melly. So we want to bring that voice in now. He is a security analyst who focuses on West Africa. He joined us on the line from London and said that people in Mali have experienced attacks like this before.

PAUL MELLY: The jihadist movement occurred the north of Mali in 2012. The French army intervened in 2013 at the request of the Malian government and together with West African forces liberated the north of the country. But since that time, there's been a constant trickle of terrorist attacks because the jihadist groups are no longer able to control territory in a conventional military sense. So instead they've resorted to pinprick military - terror attacks at first in the north country. But over the last year or so, these have spread south to Bamako and other parts of the center and south of Mali.

INSKEEP: You said jihadist groups, and you made that plural. That's the first thing I'd like to figure out here. Are there multiple organizations operating in Mali at one time?

MELLY: Yes. There are a mixture of organizations. Some - one in particular, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which are over-spilled, if you like, from wider international networks and others that have more local roots - but essentially jihadism is very alien to mainstream Malian culture and political life. The French intervention of 2013 was supported very strongly by most of the Malian population. So these are still, in proportion to the total Malian society, a tiny number of people. But they have stepped up attacks over the last year or so.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about - well, let's talk about that just a bit more. I want to listen to a bit of the French ambassador to the United States. He's Gerard Araud. He spoke with Renee earlier this morning, and he was talking about different groups inside Mali.


GERARD ARAUD: Mali has been unstable since the independence. In the North of the country, you have have the Tuareg who have been demanding independence since the '60s. This traditional Tuareg movement has been joined by Islamists, by also drug traffickers, human being traffickers throughout a region which is largely not controlled. So in a sense, it's not surprising.

INSKEEP: I'm glad that he mentioned the Tuareg because we're talking there not of a religious group, but an ethnic group. There must be a mixture of local and international concerns all coming together here.

MELLY: There is a mixture of local concerns. And the picture's also complicated because you can't even talk about single ethnic groups all having a single agenda. So, for example, the Tuareg are fragmented into a number of strands, a number of social hierarchies. One element in the far Northeast were - have a long history of campaigning for independence or autonomy. And they signed a peace deal with the Malian government earlier this year, which is being slowly implemented. But other elements of the Tuareg are actually supportive of the government and have been allied with it over the recent years of instability.

INSKEEP: That's Paul Melly. He's a security analyst who focuses on West Africa.

MONTAGNE: And I just want to turn to Ofeibea Quist-Arcton one more time. You know, you said you're not surprised by this attack in Mali and so did the French ambassador to the U.S. I'm wondering if this attack has been magnified, taken on, you know, a greater significance than it might have because of the attacks in Paris, in the sense of - sense of people being under attack.

QUIST-ARCTON: Absolutely, absolutely. In January, during the earlier attacks in France, President Boubacar - Ibrahim Boubacar Keita went to Paris. He stood with President Francoise Hollande when there was that march. So they are very mindful of the Malians, of what is going on in France. There are many Malians in France. So I think a week after the French attacks, this is going to make them wonder, what is going on?

MONTAGNE: All right, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, thank you very much. And thank you also to Philip Ewing. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.
Phil Ewing