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6 Americans Caught Up In Mali Hotel Siege

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's the latest we know about a hostage situation in Bamako, the capital of Mali. We know that gunmen stormed an upscale hotel. We know that they trapped about 170 people in that hotel, and we know that a military operation has begun to rescue or recover them. We also know that some Americans are believed to have been among those trapped in the hotel. And we're going to talk through all of that in the next few minutes.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has covered West Africa for years, and she is following this attack in Bamako from London and good morning, Ofeibea.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings.

MONTAGNE: And what is the latest that we know?

QUIST-ARCTON: We are still being told that it appears, not confirmed, but a Malian official, that three hostages may have been killed but that dozens have now been rescued or have been released, found some way of escaping.

Now, let's just go back to early this morning, Renee. We were told that it was two gunmen, but it might be more, apparently with diplomatic plates on their vehicle, arrived at the hotel and very soon after started shouting Islamist slogans, including Allahu Akbar, God is great - and then, floor by floor, apparently, looking for hostages. A hundred and seventy were at the hotel, 30 Radisson Blu staff members and the others were guests. But as you say, it seems that Malian special forces backed by French combat forces are now trying to rescue those who were taken hostage.

MONTAGNE: And the French combat forces would be there because - partly because Mali is a former colonial colony of France.

QUIST-ARCTON: More specifically, the French forces have been in Mali since they managed to drive out Islamist groups who had occupied northern Mali from the beginning of 2012, almost for a year. It was a French offensive in 2013 January that drove them out, but there has been instability since then.

MONTAGNE: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, thank you.

INSKEEP: And let's also bring in Phil Ewing. He is NPR's national security editor. He's in our studios in Washington, and he's been hearing the latest that we can get from U.S. officials about Americans involved, both as victims and perhaps as some part of the operation to rescue them. Phil, first, the people who were in the hotel - how many Americans with there?

PHIL EWING, BYLINE: We don't know exactly from the State Department how many Americans may have been in this hotel. We know that at least six have been recovered as part of these operations, but they're keeping those details vague right now because we understand this operation is still in process.

INSKEEP: I feel obliged to note that word recovered. We don't know if that means alive or dead. We don't know anything at this point.

EWING: That's correct, and I think we'll be waiting to see what the State Department says as they specify what they know out of this operation.

INSKEEP: Now, U.S. special forces have been deployed in West Africa for quite some time because the U.S. has been concerned about the spread of terrorism there. Are there American special forces active in Mali right now?

EWING: That's right. We understand from U.S. Africa command there were about 25 American military personnel in Bamako at the time of this Operation. They're not trigger-pullers. They're not kicking down doors and shooting bad guys. They're there in a support capacity for these French counterterrorism operations. But they were involved, we understand, with this operation in helping to get in touch with these Americans and support the French and Malian forces who took part in this.

INSKEEP: And is there a clear sense of the scale of the international threat? And by that, I mean we know there are Islamist groups in Mali. We know that they took over part of the country at one point. How closely connected are they with al-Qaida, Islamic State, other international groups?

EWING: Well, we see reports this morning that responsibility's being taken by al-Qaida and the Islamic Maghreb, which is connected with the core through its affiliations. We don't know yet whether that claim is accurate, but this is part of the larger battle the U.S. and the West has been waging against these al-Qaida forces, you know, since before 9/11.

INSKEEP: Phil, thanks very much.

EWING: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR national security editor Phil Ewing on this morning that we're tracking the hostage situation Mali.

MONTAGNE: And though it's happening in West Africa, the Mali attacks strikes home for France. That country, as we've heard, has historic ties with Mali. France is also recovering from last week's attack in Paris. And to discuss all of this, we're joined by France's ambassador to the United States. He's Gerard Araud. Welcome to the program.

GERARD ARAUD: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: What have you learned this morning about the Mali attack?

ARAUD: You know, actually, Mali has been unstable since the independence. In the north of the country, you have the Tuareg, who have been demanding independence, their own independence, since the '60s. This traditional Tuareg movement has been joined by Islamists, by - also drug traffickers, human being traffickers, throughout a region, which is largely not controlled. That's reason why the French intervene in 2013, to drive out the terrorists. And also, afterwards, there is now a UN peacekeeping operation. So, in a sense, as I think your reporter said, it's not surprising, you know. We know that there are Islamist groups and an attack, unfortunately, in Bamako is, right now, is not a surprise. My information is exactly yours. Our special forces are intervening with the Malians, and they are taking over, floor-by-floor, the hotel.

MONTAGNE: Well, your president, Francoise Hollande has - in this last hour - has said, and I'm quoting, "Everything is being done to free hostages held at that hotel." You know, what more can be done? And do you know of any problem with what's being done now?

ARAUD: No, I don't have any information. What is important behind this horrendous incident is the need to stabilize the country. And the stabilization of the country, you know, you have to find a political compact between the South, which is 90 percent of the population. And most of the population, in a sense, is black African. And in the north, which is 10 percent of the population, but which is, maybe, 70 percent of the surface of the country, which is largely Arab populations and Tuareg populations. And these two segments of the population have been fighting for the last 50 years.

MONTAGNE: Let me - I'd like to get back to France and the attacks in Paris. But I do want to ask you just quickly, you know, as I said - it strikes homes for France. Is this attack in Mali - does it fit into a - larger attacks elsewhere?

ARAUD: By - you know, I don't know. You know, frankly, we still don't know what is this group because as I have said, you know, there is a Malian environment of violence, of civil war, where you have the addition of a civil war and a Islamist movements. So my first reaction - but I may be totally wrong - is that it's certainly more local, a local attack.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's then talk about the attacks in Paris. Has France been receiving the support it needs the U.S. from France's viewpoint?

ARAUD: Sorry.

MONTAGNE: Has France been receiving the support it needs...

ARAUD: Oh, yes.

MONTAGNE: ...From the U.S.?

ARAUD: No, no. You know, really, we have been working with our American friends. In Mali, for instance, the Americans are providing us with a lot of technical relief and intelligence. We have been side-by-side in Iraq and now in - and in Syria. And since this horrendous attack, the Americans are providing us with a lot, a lot of intelligence.

MONTAGNE: Now, French lawmakers are expected today to extend the state of emergency that's been in effect this last week and to extend it for three more months, which would allow police to do as they've been doing - go into homes, make arrests without warrants. Your government is a left government. How is this fitting into your general policy on these things?

ARAUD: You know, the problem that all democracies are facing in such a situation is to find the right balance between civil liberties and law and order. And after such an attack, you know, it's nearly unavoidable that the balance - this balance is shifting towards a law enforcement. What has been decided by the Parliament, you know, is for three months. And I do hope, as a citizen - I do hope that it won't be necessary to prolong it after three months.

MONTAGNE: Well, let me ask you one other thing. The U.S. Congress has demanded tighter screenings for refugees. President Hollande has increased, it appears, his commitment to refugees. What about that?

ARAUD: I think it's very courageous, very dignified because, you know, we have local elections in France the first week of December. And, you know, basically, the political life now in the U.S. and the political life in Europe is not that different, you know. We have in the both sides of the Atlantic. We have a far right and a far right which is campaigning against the immigrants. So I think that's the stance of my president after these attacks and that two weeks from the elections, it's quite courageous.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

ARAUD: Please, thank you.

MONTAGNE: That is France's ambassador to the U.S. Gerard Araud.

Now let's reviews what's known about today's attack in Mali. Gunmen attacked an upscale hotel in the capital. So far, a small number of people have been reported killed. The gunmen took an estimated 170 hostages. A military operation is underway to free them. French forces are supporting Malian special forces. At least six Americans are said to have been in that hotel and were, quote, "recovered." Their condition is, at this moment, unknown. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.