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Gunmen Shouting Islamist Slogans Storm Mali Hotel

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Just as we near the end of a week in which attackers were chased across Paris, we have news of a new assault. This time, it's in West Africa. Gunmen walked into a hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has covered West Africa for years. She's in London now and, tracking developments in this story, joins us to talk about it.

Good morning.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings.

MONTAGNE: What happened after those gunmen walked in?

QUIST-ARCTON: Apparently they stormed their way in after driving into the hotel compound with a vehicle that carried diplomatic plates. We were told that they then started shouting Islamic slogans such as Allahu Akbar - God is great. Now, in the hotel were about 140 guests from countries including India, China, Turkey, France, Guinea. And they started shooting and rounding people up from floor to floor. Then we're told that the Malian special forces, backed by French special forces, stormed the Radisson Blu hotel and have managed to release or free dozens of people. But Renee, we're being told - and this is an official Malian source - that three hostages appear to have been killed.

MONTAGNE: And remind us, just briefly, why French special forces would've been on the scene to help and what France's stake in this is.

QUIST-ARCTON: Mali is a former French colony and retained very, very close links with France. But most significantly, in January 2013, after the occupation of the northern half of Mali, including Timbuktu by Islamist - disparate Islamist groups, France sent in its troops in an offensive that managed to drive these forces from the north. And about a thousand French troops are still based in Mali. So very close relations.

Now, all this is happening under the nose of the U.N. peacekeeping force that has been in Mali for several years, Renee. But it is indicative of the insecurity, the chronic insecurity and instability in Mali and across parts of the region.

MONTAGNE: And stay with us, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, because we would like to bring in another voice into this conversation.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

That's right. He's Paul Melly. He is a French security analyst, and he's on the line. Welcome to the program, sir.

PAUL MELLY: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So this is a country, Mali, where Islamists have been active for years. They've even taken over parts of the country from time to time. But now there's the assault on this hotel. Is this, in some way, a new tactic in Mali?

MELLY: Not really. It's basically - the jihadis movements took over the north of Mali in 2012. The French army intervened in 2013 at the request of the Malian government, and together we (unintelligible) African forces, liberated the north of the country. But since that time, there's been a constant trickle of terrorist attacks. Because the jihadis groups are no longer able to control territory in a conventional military sense so instead they resorted to pinprick military terror attacks, at first in the north of the country, but after the last year or so they've spread south to Bamako and other parts of the center and south of Mali.

INSKEEP: You said, jihadis groups, and you made that plural. That's the first thing I'd like to figure out here. Are there multiple organizations operating in Mali at one time?

MELLY: Yes, there are a mixture of organizations. Some - one in particular, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which overspills, if you like, from wider international networks, and others that have more local roots. But essentially jihadism is very alien to mainstream Malian culture and political life. The French intervention of 2013 was supported very strongly by most of the Malian population. So these are still in proportion to the total Malian society, a tiny number of people. But they have stepped up attacks over the last year or so.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that just a bit more. I want to listen to a bit of the French ambassador to the United States. He's Gerard Araud. He spoke with Renee earlier this morning, and he was talking about different groups inside Mali.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GERARD ARAUD: Mali has been unstable since the independence. In the north of the country, you have the Tuareg, who have been demanding 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. So in a sense it's not surprising.

INSKEEP: I'm glad that he mentioned the Tuareg because we're talking there not of a religious group, but an ethnic group. There must be a mixture of local and international concerns all coming together here.

MELLY: There is a mixture of concerns. And the picture's also complicated because you can't even talk about single ethnic groups all having a single agenda. So for example, the Tuareg are fragmented into a number of strands, a number of social hierarchies. One element in the far northeast were - have a long history of campaigning for independence or autonomy and they signed a peace deal with the Malian government earlier this year, which is being slowly implemented. But other elements of the Tuareg are actually supportive of the government and have been allied with it over the recent years of instability.

INSKEEP: Now stay with us...

MELLY: And then the jihadis come from many other groups.

INSKEEP: Stay with us for a moment, Mr. Melly. I want to bring NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton back into the conversation and remind people that we are tracking a hostage situation in Mali. There is a hotel there, a Radisson Blu - upscale hotel in the capital city, Bamako - where we are told about 170 people were taken hostage, in effect, locked in by a small number of gunmen who attacked the hotel today. And Malian special forces, with the support of the French, have gone in and attempted to free the hostages and apparently freed a number of them.

And Ofeibea, as you've been watching these developments, what's the latest that you know?

QUIST-ARCTON: We are told - and not confirmed yet, but it's a Malian official saying three hostages have been killed. As the Malian special forces, backed by the French special forces, stormed the Radisson Blu and dozens - apparently dozens of the hostages have either been released, freed, or have escaped. Let me just add here, Steve, that we're being told by some of those who have gained, regained their freedom, that they were being told to recite Quranic verses. And we see this divisive behavior by Islamist extremists in very many situations. So some will let the Muslims free, some won't because they say the Sufi Muslim tradition in Mali is too lax. They want to impose a caliphate, and they want much stricter Sharia. But as Paul Melly was saying, these disparate Islamist groups is one side, and then the Tuareg separatists another side. But the separatists who began the occupation of the north back in 2012 were soon overtaken by all these Islamist groups who were much better armed, much better funded, apparently, and much, much stronger than the Tuareg groups.

INSKEEP: Let me ask you about something else Paul Melly mentioned. He used the word unstable - or, I believe perhaps it was the French ambassador, he used the word unstable. Is that a fair description of this government now? How strong is the government in Mali?

QUIST-ARCTON: It's difficult to be strong in Mali after a coup d'etat, first of all, in 2012. And that was said that the government of the time was not supporting the soldiers in their fight against separatists, Tuaregs, and then it spiraled into this, you know, literally the occupation of the north. It's very difficult for President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who's now been in power for what, maybe two and a half years, to gain control. We have a U.N. peacekeeping force in Mali, and yet this hostage-taking at the Radisson Blu has happened right under their nose. A thousand French troops in Mali, and the Malian forces and yet look what has happened. So it is now chronic instability. And let me just say, Steve, that back in August last year, there was another hostage-taking, this time in the center of the country, in Sevare, in which five U.N. workers were killed amongst others. And then in March, in Bamako, for the first time any such incident in the capital, five people, including a French citizen and a Belgian, were killed in an attack at a restaurant. So it is chronic instability. And it's not just Mali, it's spreading throughout the region. We have Boko Haram in Nigeria, not so far away. We were told that Boko Haram, which has now pledged allegiance to Islamic State that their fighters were part of the occupation of the north two, three years ago.

INSKEEP: OK. Ofeibea, thanks very much. That's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton today, giving us the latest on the developments in Mali. We also heard from Paul Melly, a French security analyst.

Mr. Melly, thanks for your insights today, very much appreciated.

MELLY: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: And just to review here, we had a number of gunmen - small number of gunmen storm a Radisson Blu hotel today in Bamako, the capital of Mali. Operations are ongoing to rescue the more than 170 people who were taken hostage inside. French troops are said to be involved as well as Malian troops. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.