Five Defense Department personnel were caught in the middle of the hostage crisis at a hotel in Mali's capital of Bamako on Friday and were safely released after the standoff with gunmen ended, defense officials said.
At least one U.S. service member assigned to Special Operations Command Forward-North and West Africa who was at the hotel at the time stepped in to assist first responders who were moving civilians from the hotel to secure locations.
Malian forces worked to clear the hotel of hostile gunmen, and U.S. military personnel did not directly participate in the operation, a Defense Department official said Friday. Initial reports suggested that U.S. Joint Special Operations troops were involved in the response, but defense officials at the Pentagon later said that was inaccurate.
Some 22 DoD military and civilian personnel were in Bamako as the crisis unfolded and all have been accounted for, with no injuries, a defense official said Friday.
Army Gen. David Rodriguez, chief of U.S. Africa Command, told reporters the attack is likely linked to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, a growing terrorism threat throughout West and North Africa.
Mali officials announced that the crisis ended Friday morning after the hotel was cleared of hostages and two gunmen involved in the takeover were shot and killed by security forces, according to international news reports.
About 10 gunmen took about 170 hostages inside the Radisson Blu, a hotel popular with foreigners visiting Mali's capital. The gunmen reportedly stormed the hotel shouting "Allahu Akbar," or "God is great," carrying rifles and grenades.
At least three people were reported dead after security forces cleared the building floor by floor.
The U.S. Embassy in Mali advised Americans in Bamako to remain inside or "shelter in place."
The U.S. military offered intelligence and airlift support for French and Malian forces, but the Malian government did not issue a formal request for additional U.S. military assistance, officials said.
U.S. Africa Command is based in Germany and oversees joint military activity throughout the African continent. Rodriguez, its commander, was in Washington on Friday and was hosting a roundtable for defense reporters as the hostage crisis unfolded.
Hundreds of U.S. military personnel typically are on the ground throughout West Africa, predominantly small special operations teams and other advisers who provide counterterrorism training to foreign militaries throughout the region.
The Marine Corps has a crisis response force in Europe dedicated to providing rapid response to contingencies in Africa. So far, that unit has not been directed to respond to the situation in Mali, Capt. Héctor Alejandroa, a spokesman for the unit, told Military Times on Friday.
Some of the American military personnel in Mali are assigned to or on temporary duty with the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission, or the U.S. Embassy.
Staff writers Gina Harkins, Michelle Tan and Andrew deGrandpre contributed to this report, along with The Associated Press.
In this TV image taken from Mali TV ORTM, a member of the security forces walks past a body lying covered on the floor in the Radisson Blu Hotel hotel in Bamako, Mali, on Friday. Men shouting "God is great," and armed with guns and throwing grenades, stormed into the Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali's capital Friday morning.
Photo Credit: Mali TV ORTM via AP