A bloody terrorist attack that left 23 people dead in Burkina Faso’s capital ended Saturday after national and French security forces raided an upscale hotel in the capital, killing four extremists and freeing 126 hostages.
The dead included people of 18 different nationalities, the BBC reported. Among the freed hostages was the country’s labor minister.
Three of the terrorists, believed to belong to a local al-Qaeda affiliate, were killed in the assault on the Hotel Splendid, a popular meeting place for foreign tourists and United Nations staff in central Ouagadougou. A fourth attacker was killed nearby.
Two of the attackers were women, President Roch Marc Christian Kabore said on national radio, according to the Associated Press.
The French Ambassador, Gilles Thibault, however, gave a higher death toll of 27 and denied any women were among the dead militants, the BBC reported. He also tweeted that 150 people from 18 countries had been rescued.
The raid to end the siege was mounted after dozens of French forces arrived overnight from neighboring Mali. One U.S. military member was embedded with French forces at the scene, and the United States was working to help provide France with surveillance and reconnaissance help, according to a U.S. senior defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, the AP reported.
The attack in the capital of the landlocked West African country began late Friday when the terrorists seized the hotel and the nearby Cappuccino Cafe and set fire to several cars, according to AFP. Burkina Faso’s Internal Affairs Minister Simon Compaore said 10 bodies were found inside the cafe after the siege ended.
The terrorist group known as AQIM, or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, claimed responsibility online as the attack was unfolding at the 147-room hotel, according to SITE Intelligence Group, a U.S.-based organization that monitors jihadists’ online activity.
In a message posted in Arabic on the extremists’ “Muslim Africa” Telegram account, the group said fighters “broke into a restaurant of one of the biggest hotels in the capital of Burkina Faso, and are now entrenched and the clashes are continuing with the enemies of the religion.” Fighters who spoke by phone later “asserted the fall of many dead Crusaders,” AQIM said, according to SITE.
The same group is believed responsible for a similar siege at an upscale hotel in Bamako, Mali in November that left 20 dead.
While Burkina Faso, a largely Muslim country, has largely been spared the violence wracked by Islamic extremist groups in Mali, a Romanian national was abducted last April.
The attacks follow growing tension in Burkina Faso the wake of a coup attempt by presidential guards that collapsed in September. The newly installed government of president Kabore recently issued an arrest warrant for Guillaume Soro, the head of the National Assembly in neighboring Ivory Coast, for his alleged involvement in the failed coup attempt.
In addition, Kabore broke with the past Wednesday by picking a cabinet packed with ministers who had not served under the previous administration of Blaise Compaore, who was president for 27 years. Compaore went into exile in Ivory Coast after being ousted in an uprising in 2014.
In a separate development, an Austrian doctor and his wife were kidnapped Friday night by extremists in Burkina Faso’s north near its border with Mali, Abi Ouattara, security ministry spokeswoman, said Saturday, the AP reported.