Jihadists suspected in deadly Mali hotel siege: Source

AFP , Sunday 9 Aug 2015

A jihadist group is strongly suspected of carrying out the hotel siege in Mali that ended with the deaths of at least 12 people including five UN workers, a security source said Sunday.

No one has claimed responsibility for the assault in the central town of Sevare, which coincided with a surge in jihadist attacks spreading through the region in recent months.

"At this stage there is no formal proof that it was the Macina Liberation Front (FLM), but strong suspicions point to this group that has been seeking notoriety at all costs," the source said.

Since it first appeared earlier this year the FLM has claimed responsibility for several attacks, including some targeting security forces in central Mali.

FLM is considered to be linked to Ansar Dine -- Arabic for Defenders of Faith -- which is one of the groups that took control of Mali's vast semi-arid north in April 2012.

The United States placed Ansar Dine on its terror blacklist in 2013, accusing it of close links with Al-Qaeda and of torturing and killing opponents in the north.

The private Mauritanian news agency Al-Akhbar, which regularly publishes jihadist statements, also said Sunday that the FLM "could be behind the attack in Sevare."

The deadly siege began early Friday when gunmen burst into the Hotel Byblos, frequented by expatriates.

The Malian army -- along with foreign special forces, according to a Malian military source -- stormed the building, bringing the siege to an end nearly 24 hours later.

Reports vary on the numbers and identities of those killed.

The UN mission in Mali (MINUSMA) said two Ukrainians, a Nepalese and a South African were killed during the siege and subsequent military operation, as well as a Malian driver working for a company contracted by the mission.

An army officer said "five terrorists" were killed in the operation as well as five soldiers and "two whites".

Four of the soldiers were buried in Sevare on Saturday, with the rural development and security ministers, Boukary Treta and Sada Samake, in attendance, a witness said.

Both the army and MINUSMA said the death toll could rise.

Meanwhile, residents said the army mounted patrols overnight following the siege.

Soldiers could be seen in Sevare as well as along the road to the nearby regional capital Mopti, a popular tourist destination and the gateway to Dogon Country, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

A Sevare resident told AFP by telephone in Bamako that the night was calm. "People are starting to go about their business. Everything is returning to normal here in Sevare," he said.

Located some 12 kilometres (seven miles) from Mopti and 620 kilometres northeast of the capital Bamako, Sevare is a key staging post on the road to Mali's desert north which fell to Islamic extremists in 2012.

A French-led offensive routed Islamist groups from their northern strongholds the following year, but entire swathes of the desert region remain lawless.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon, France and the United States denounced the latest attack, which came as the former French colony is seeking to implement a June peace deal.

Jihadist attacks have long been concentrated in Mali's north, but began spreading early this year to the centre of the country, and in June to the south near the borders with Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.

Two attacks early this month in central and northern Mali left 13 soldiers dead.

"No region is being spared," said an opposition group, the Party for National Rebirth, led by former foreign minister Thiebile Drame.

"The arrogance and audacity of the aggressors seem to have no limits."

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