OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — Heavy gunfire erupted early Saturday as forces from Burkina Faso and France worked to overtake a luxury hotel that had been seized by al-Qaida militants the night before, seizing and killing an unknown number of hostages. At least 10 bodies had been found in the aftermath so far, a government minister said.
The harrowing attack was launched by the same extremists behind a similar siege at an upscale hotel in the Malian capital back in November that left 20 dead. It was not immediately known how many people remained inside the hotel as the morning call to prayer signaled a new day in this West African nation.
Dozens of French forces arrived overnight from neighboring Mali to aid the rescue. One U.S. military member was embedded with French forces on the scene of the attack, and the United States was working to help provide France with surveillance and reconnaissance help, according to a U.S. senior defense official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The local al-Qaida affiliate known as AQIM claimed responsibility online as the attack was ongoing in downtown Ouagadougou at the 147-room Splendid Hotel, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.
In a message posted in Arabic on the militants' "Muslim Africa" Telegram account, it said fighters had "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.
Internal Affairs Minister Simon Compaore said that already 10 bodies had been found inside the Cappuccino Cafe, a restaurant that is located next to the Splendid Hotel.
"We know that the gunmen won't get out of the hotel alive," said one witness, who gave only his first name, Gilbert. "Our country is not for jihadists or terrorists. They got it wrong."
Burkina Faso, a largely Muslim country, had for years been mostly spared from the violence carried out by Islamic extremist groups who were abducting foreigners for ransom in Mali and Niger. Then last April, a Romanian national was kidnapped in an attack that was the first of its kind in Burkina Faso.
The country also has been in growing political turmoil since its longtime president was ousted in a popular uprising in late 2014. Last September members of a presidential guard launched a coup that lasted only about a week. The transitional government returned to power until Burkina Faso's November election ushered in new leaders.
Friday's violence mirrored a devastating attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in neighboring Mali back in November that left 20 people dead. In that case, Malian troops — backed by French and American special forces — swarmed in to retake the building and free terrified guests and hotel staff during a siege that lasted more than seven hours.
The Bamako hotel attack also was claimed by a leader of AQIM, who said it had been carried out as a declaration of unity with Algerian militant Moktar Belmoktar's extremist group Al-Mourabitoun, according to an audio speech that was distributed by SITE at the time. Belmoktar was a former leader in AQIM before starting his own group, which now has merged back with al-Qaida.
Associated Press writers Ludivine Laniepce in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal; and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.