Bamako, Nov 22: The heavily armed Islamic extremists who shot up a luxury hotel in Mali's capital, killing 19 people, timed their assault for the moment when guards would be the most lax, allowing them to easily blast their way past a five-man security team before turning their weapons on terrified guests, a security guard and witnesses said today.
The timing suggested a well-planned operation that analysts say could be an attempt by al-Qaida to assert its relevance amid high-profile attacks by the rival Islamic State group.
The attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako began at around 7 am. Friday morning when two gunmen, approaching on foot, reached the entrance where five guards who had worked the night shift were waiting to be replaced by a new team, said Cheick Dabo, one of the guards.
The guards had just finished the morning prayer and had put their weapons, a shotgun and two pistols â away in their vehicle when the militants struck.
"We didn't see the jihadists until they started firing on us. We weren't concentrating and we didn't expect it," he said.
Four of the guards were shot, one fatally, while Dabo himself managed to hide under a car. Government critics have attacked the level of security at the hotel and in the country but Interior Minister Salif Traore said today that there was little to be done in the face of such determined attackers.
"They were ready to die, so the level of security is hardly important," he told reporters. "The Radisson hotel had a level of security that was considered good."
Once inside, at least one of the assailants headed for the kitchen and restaurant, sparking pandemonium, said Mohammed Coulibaly, a cook at the hotel.
"I was busy cooking when a waitress started screaming at the door, 'They are attacking us, they are attacking us!'" Coulibaly said.
"I asked everyone to go into the hallway, so everyone headed in that direction. Suddenly we heard the footsteps of the jihadists behind us and there was total panic and people were running in every direction."
Coulibaly said he then hid in a bathroom with one of the guests, but one of the assailants saw him through a window and started firing, prompting him to run to the kitchen where he was nearly overwhelmed by smoke.
"I realised that if I didn't leave the kitchen the smoke would kill me. So I waited until I didn't hear any noise and I ran from the kitchen and escaped the hotel through a window," he said.
By that point, the assailants were heading upstairs where they took dozens of hostages, launching a standoff with Malian security forces that lasted more than seven hours and claimed 19 lives in addition to their own. All but one of the victims were hotel guests.