OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — Al-Qaida militants struck an upscale hotel and nearby cafe late Friday that were popular with Westerners in Burkina Faso's capital, taking an unknown number of hostages and forcing others to hide for their lives as gunfire and explosions rang out. The country's troops backed by French forces were still trying to retake control of the building more than nine hours later.
It was not immediately known how many people may have been killed during the siege, though a survivor told hospital director Robert Sangare he estimated the toll could be as high as 20. Communications Minister Remis Dandjinou said early Saturday that 33 people had been evacuated from the Splendid Hotel including the country's public works minister.
The local al-Qaida affiliate known as AQIM claimed responsibility online even 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.
In the early morning hours, French forces arrived in Ouagadougou from neighboring Mali to aid the effort. Burkinabe soldiers already had stormed the building, at one point briefly setting part of the building ablaze with their explosives.
Cars in front of the hotel also had been set on fire by the attackers, who stormed the bustling area downtown Friday evening.
Witness Vital Nounagnon told the AP that he saw four men wearing turbans attack the hotel and neighboring Cappuccino Cafe about 7:30 p.m. Another witness who gave only his first name, Gilbert, said that when Burkinabe security forces first arrived, they turned around rather than confront the attackers.
"But we know that the gunmen won't get out of the hotel alive," he said. "Our country is not for jihadists or terrorists. They got it wrong."
A man who works the day shift at the Cappuccino Cafe, Alpha Ouedraogo, had left just 90 minutes before the attack began. He said he had been in touch by phone with other employees and that more than a dozen of them were in hiding and awaiting rescue.
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 and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.