Burkina Faso attack: Dozens freed, at least 23 dead in hotel siege

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Special police forces are seen during search operations following an attack by Al-Qaeda linked gunmen on January 16, 2016 in Ouagadougou. Security forces in Burkina Faso on January 16 completed a counter-offensive against jihadist assailants who stormed a top hotel and a restaurant in the capital hours earlier, a security source said. The source said security forces were continuing search operations in the area around the Splendid hotel and nearby Cappuccino restaurant, which were attacked by the Al-Qaeda-linked gunmen late on January 15, killing at least 23 people. / AFP / AHMED OUOBA (Photo credit should read AHMED OUOBA/AFP/Getty Images)

Attackers raided a luxury hotel in Burkina Faso overnight, opening fire and seizing hostages in an hours-long siege that ended with at least 23 people dead.

An al Qaeda-linked terrorist group claimed responsibility for the assault at Splendid Hotel — a popular meeting place for Western diplomats in the capital, Ouagadougou.

The attack began Friday night and dragged on under the cover of darkness. Security forces circled the perimeter to assess the situation before they stormed in hours later.

“Everyone was panicked and was lying down on the floor. There was blood everywhere, they were shooting at people at point blank,” said Yannick Sawadogo, who survived the siege.

Security forces entered the hotel early Saturday and freed 126 hostages, half of whom were hospitalized, said Alpha Barry, the nation’s foreign minister.

The 23 people killed were of 18 nationalities, according to security minister Simon Compaore.

At least four attackers were killed, including two women, he said. It was unclear whether their deaths were included in the figure of 23 people killed.

The French Foreign Ministry, whose troops helped in the rescue operation, said 27 people died.

‘We could hear them talking’

Survivors described horrific scenes as the attackers paced and fired in the hotel Friday night.

“We could hear them talking and they were walking around and kept shooting at people who seemed alive,” Sawadogo told CNN affiliate BFMTV.

Sawadogo said he escaped through a broken window, and could barely see because of smoke.

Search for hostages, terrorists

Burkinabe forces scoured rooms at the hotel, looking for terrorists and any remaining hostages. Those rescued included a government minister, state media reported.

The West African nation’s forces received logistical support from American and French troops. Shortly after the forces stormed the hotel, the sounds of gunshots faded.

Hotel popular with diplomats

The attack in Burkina Faso appeared well-planned, with some of the attackers coming to the hotel during the day and mingling with guests, the foreign minister said.

When darkness fell, more attackers joined them, he said.

Before the hotel assault, they attacked the Cappuccino café across the street, which had about 100 people, according to the state broadcaster.

They then took off to the Splendid Hotel, where they seized hostages.

Witnesses said the attackers wore turbans and spoke a language not native to Burkina Faso, a former French colony.

U.S. forces helped with logistical support. The United States has about 75 military personnel in Burkina Faso, including 15 assigned to the U.S. Embassy, according to a U.S. defense official. An additional 60 help train and advise the French military in the nation.

Al Qaeda claims responsibility

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the assault, local media reported. CNN could not independently confirm that claim.

The al Qaeda-linked Al-Mourabitoun said it conducted the attack, which had similarities to the one in neighboring Mali in November.

Al-Mourabitoun had claimed responsibility for the November attack at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali, which left 22 people dead.

The group’s leader is veteran al Qaeda figure Mokhtar Belmokhtar, according to the Mauritania-based Al Akhbar news agency.

In June, Libya’s interim government reported that he died in an American airstrike.

‘Odious and cowardly attack’

The attack comes a few months after Burkina Faso marked a turning point following a historic presidential election.

The West African nation elected a new President in November after nearly three decades of autocratic rule followed by a civil uprising.

Roch Marc Christian Kabore, the nation’s former Prime Minister, won more than 53% of votes in that election.

Elections were postponed the month before because of a failed coup against the transitional government.

The West, particularly France, considers Burkina Faso a key ally in the fight against al Qaeda.

French President Francois Hollande said he stands with the nation against the “odious and cowardly attack.”

The U.S. Embassy also condemned the attack, describing it as a ” senseless assault on innocent people.”