Security forces in Burkina Faso retook a hotel in the capital on Saturday a day after al-Qaida terrorists seized it in an assault that killed at least 28 people from at least 18 countries and marked a major escalation of Islamist terrorism in West Africa.
Until Friday’s attack, the landlocked nation, an ally of Western governments against jihadist groups in the arid reaches of the southern Sahara, had largely been spared the violence that has plagued its neighbors.
The assault follows a similar raid in November on a luxury hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako which killed 20 people, including citizens of Russia, China and the United States.
The Ouagadougou assault, claimed by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), marked an expansion of operations for Islamist terrorists who are stepping up their activities, echoing the growth of Islamic State in the Middle East.
President Roch Marc Christian Kabore said 28 people were killed in the 146-room Splendid Hotel, in the Cappuccino restaurant across the street and at a second nearby hotel, the Hotel Yibi, according to an initial death toll.
Speaking on state-owned media, Kabore said 156 hostages had been freed by the security operation to retake the area, while around 50 civilians had been wounded. Four members of the security forces, including one French soldier were also wounded.
“Faced with these terrorists and their vile acts, we must mobilize to ensure the appropriate response to put them out of action,” Kabore said.
“We will emerge victorious from this war, which has been imposed upon our people and all other people of the world who want peace and freedom,” he said, adding that the nation would observe three days of mourning from Sunday.
Authorities had earlier said that victims of 18 different nationalities were killed in the attack which targeted an area popular with Westerners and French soldiers based in Burkina Faso.
The authorities gave no further details of the victims, but the French government announced on Saturday that two French citizens were among the dead. Paris pledged to send scientific police to help investigate the attack, and a French court opened an investigation for murder and attempted murder.
Switzerland’s foreign minister said that two of its citizens were also killed. A Dutch citizen was also among the dead, the Dutch government said.
The terrorists torched cars and fired in the air to drive people back on Friday before entering the Splendid Hotel and taking hostages.
French and U.S. military personnel backed up Burkina Faso security forces when they launched their operation to reclaim the Splendid Hotel in the early hours of Saturday.
France normally has up to 200 special forces troops in the country as part of a regional anti- terrorist operation.
While many in Burkina Faso and across the region were shocked by the raid, there have been indications that the security situation in the majority Muslim but religiously diverse nation was deteriorating.
“There have been warning signs and if there is an element of surprise it is that this did not come earlier,” said Cynthia Ohayon, West Africa analyst at International Crisis Group.
Ohayon said it was no coincidence such incidents had only happened since Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore was driven from power. The longtime leader’s ouster likely ended a convenient relationship between Burkina Faso and terrorists that had, until then, protected the country, she said.
“Compaore had high connections with rebel and Islamist groups, and he helped to free hostages while some group members had houses in Ouagadougou,” she said.