(SOURCE) DEVELOPING: Gunmen who have taken more than 100 hostages after storming a hotel in Mali’s capital Friday morning while shouting “Allahu Akbar” reportedly are forcing their captives to recite verses from the Koran or face death.
Malian army commander Modibo Nama Traore told The Associated Press that at least one guest earlier reported that the attackers instructed him to recite verses from the Koran before he was allowed to leave the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital, Bamako.
Traore said 10 gunmen had stormed the hotel shouting “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great,” in Arabic before firing on the guards. A staffer at the hotel who gave his name as Tamba Diarra said over the phone that the attackers used grenades in the assault.
The Brussels-based Rezidor Hotel group that operates the hotel said the assailants had “locked in” 140 guests and 30 employees.
Lt. Col. Diarran Kone said at least three people have been killed so far in the assault.
One witness told Reuters that he heard the attackers speaking English.
Traore said Malian special forces have entered the hotel and are freeing hostages “floor by floor.” Local TV images showed heavily armed troops in what appeared to be a lobby area.
He told the Associated Press that at least 30 hostages had been freed already and that Malian security forces were trying to make contact with the assailants.
Ambulances were rushing to the hotel as a military helicopter flew overhead. The U.N. mission said it was sending security reinforcements.
The U.S. Embassy in Mali told citizens to shelter in place amid reports of an “ongoing active shooter operation.”
Monique Kouame Affoue Ekonde, from Ivory Coast, said she and six other people, including a Turkish woman, were escorted out by security forces as the gunmen rushed “toward the fifth or sixth floor.”
“I think they are still there. I’ve left the hotel and I don’t know where to go. I’m tired and in a state of shock,” she told The Associated Press.
French President Francois Hollande said France is ready to help Mali with all means necessary in the wake of the attack and urged French citizens in Mali to make contact with the French Embassy there “in order that everything is made to offer them protection.”
In Belgium, Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said there were four Belgians registered at the attacked hotel but it’s unclear if they were taken hostage by the gunmen or not.
Reynders also said there are “15 hostages who have been freed after an intervention” but didn’t provide more details.
Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has cut short its tip to Chad where he was attending a meeting of G5 Sahel.
The Mali presidency said on Twitter that Keita will be back to Bamako “in the next hours.”
Meanwhile, France’s national gendarme service says about 50 elite police troops are en route from Paris to Bamako.
A spokesman for the service who was not authorized to be publicly named said they are heading Friday from two different units of special police forces trained for emergency situations.
Even after the French-led military intervention in early 2013 that drove extremists from northern towns and cities in Mali, the northern part of the country remains insecure and militant attacks have extended farther south this year, including the capital. In March, masked gunmen shot up a restaurant in Bamako that is popular with foreigners, killing five people.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.