Foreigners rescued as Mali hotel siege leaves seven dead

Bamako (AFP) - Five foreigners have been evacuated and a "number" of hostages freed after they were trapped by gunmen in a hotel standoff with soldiers in central Mali that left at least seven people dead, military sources said early Saturday.

"We can not say that everything is finished, but a number of hostages" were freed by Malian forces deployed around the Hotel Byblos in Sevare, a source told AFP.

Another military source said Malian Special Forces had rescued the hostages, including five foreigners "who were evacuated to Bamako". The source was unable to specify their nationalities.

The attackers had stormed the hotel, frequented by foreign visitors and troops, at around 7:00 am (0700 GMT) Friday, according to the government.

Malian forces cordoned off the area but their efforts against the gunmen were made "sensitive" by the presence of hostages, a military source said Friday.

It was not clear how many people were still being held by the attackers. Part of the UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA) was also staying in the hotel, the government said.

The government statement Friday evening gave a provisional toll of "five dead, two injured" on the Malian army side and "two killed" on the insurgent side. Seven suspects had been detained, it added.

MINUSMA said a member of its associate international staff was killed in the "terrorist attack", without giving the victim's nationality. It was not clear if that death was included in the government toll.

The UN mission said it had sent a Malian rapid response team from the capital Bamako -- 620 kilometres (385 miles) to the south -- and "reinforced the security of Sevare-Mopti airport".

It said the initial target of the attack was a Malian military site.

"The attackers, who were repulsed by the Malian forces, then holed up in a hotel," a MINUSMA statement said.

"The clashes between the attackers and Malian security forces continued throughout the morning and sporadic fire continues at the hotel and in the neighbourhood," the statement added.

A military source had earlier said at least eight people had been killed with "three bodies lying in front of the hotel next to a burned-out minibus."

One of the attackers was wearing an explosives belt, the source said.

- Confusion -

It is unclear who the foreigners who were being held are, though the governments of Russia and Ukraine confirmed earlier they each had a national among the hostages.

A spokesman for the Russian embassy in Mali told RIA Novosti state news agency that the Russian hostage was an employee of UTAir, an aviation company which works with the UN peacekeeping mission.

A Ukrainian hostage managed to escape from the "four or five terrorists" who were still barricaded inside the hotel, telling soldiers that he had been with three South Africans and a Russian when the shooting began.

French President Francois Hollande said French citizens could also "possibly" be caught up in the attack, while South Africa said it was "aware of the situation".

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which comes as Mali battles a resurgence in jihadist violence, two years after a French-led offensive routed three Islamist factions from most parts of the country.

Situated only a few kilometres from the regional capital Mopti, Sevare is a key staging post on the road to the desert north which fell to extremists in 2012.

- Town 'in lockdown' -

"This hostage-taking is part of the terrorist strategy that Mali and the international community are mobilised against," Malian Communications Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga told France 24 television.

"The army has completely sealed off the area and the town is in lockdown. They have asked people to stay at home," a local official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

MINUSMA said it was liaising with French forces about the response to the Sevare attack.

France has more than 1,000 soldiers in northern Mali as part of an regional anti-terrorist operation.

It was the third assault in just a week in Mali, which is still struggling to restore stability despite a landmark peace deal agreed in June to end years of unrest and ethnic divisions.

A number of foreigners have been kidnapped by Islamist militants in Mali in recent years, at least two of whom are still being held hostage by Al-Qaeda's front group in the region AQIM.

AQIM and two allied Islamist groups seized control of Mali's north in 2012 before being ousted by French and Malian forces in January 2013.

The insurgents have continued to mount sporadic attacks from their bases in the desert, mainly in the north.

But the attacks have spread since the beginning of the year to the centre of the country and in June to the south near the borders with Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.

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