80 hostages reportedly freed in Mali hotel hostage saga

It’s understood among those freed are people who were able to recite verses of the Quran.

Malian security forces evacuate two women from an area surrounding the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako on 20 November, 2015. Gunmen went on a shooting rampage at the luxury hotel in Mali's capital Bamako, seizing 170 guests and staff in an ongoing hostage-taking that has left at least three people dead. Picture: AFP.

JOHANNESBURG - Eighty hostages held by Islamist gunmen have now been freed from a luxury hotel in the capital where government special forces are moving floor to floor to clear the building.

At least three people have been killed in the Bamako siege at the Radisson Blu and the gunmen inside are still holding scores of guests and employees hostage.

It's understood among those freed are people who were able to recite verses of the Quran.

No group has yet claimed responsibility and survivors have told Reuters the attackers spoke English.

It's also being reported that the gunmen were traveling in a diplomatic car which may have helped them avoid detection.

The UN's Olivier Saldago says they're not yet sure if the gunmen are willing to negotiate.

"I can't tell you what the intention is and I'm not sure if they want to negotiate anything."

Air France has cancelled all flights to Bamako as the hostage situation plays out.

This raid comes just a week after Isis militants killed 129 people in co-ordinated shootings and bombings in Paris.

French president Francois Hollande meanwhile says everything is being done to free the remaining hostages and around 50 French counter-terrorism officers will leave for Bamako imminently.

Twelve Air France flight crew were in the hotel, but all were extracted safely, the French national carrier said.

A Turkish official said three of six Turkish Airlines staff who had been in the hotel had managed to flee.

The Chinese state news agency Xinhua said several Chinese tourists were among those trapped inside the building.

Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita cut short a trip to a regional summit in Chad to return to Bamako, his office said.

The identity of the Bamako gunmen, or the group to which they belong, is not known.

ISLAMISTS ACTIVE IN MALI

Northern Mali was occupied by Islamist fighters, some with links to al-Qaeda, for most of 2012. They were driven out by a French-led military operation, but sporadic violence has continued in Mali's central belt on the southern reaches of the Sahara, and in Bamako.

One security source said as many as 10 gunmen had stormed the building, although the company that runs the hotel, Rezidor Group, said it understood that there were only two attackers.

The hotel's head of security, Seydou Dembele, said two private security guards had been shot in the legs in the early stages of the assault.

"We saw two of the attackers. One was wearing a balaclava. The other was black-skinned. They forced the first barrier," Dembele told Reuters.

Within minutes of the assault, police and then soldiers had surrounded the hotel and were blocking roads leading into the neighbourhood.

It is not the first time Bamako has come under attack.

An Islamist group claimed responsibility for the death of five people last March in an attack on a restaurant in Bamako that is popular with foreigners.

And on 17 August, people were killed during an attack on a hotel in Sevare in central Mali, some 600km northeast of Bamako that was claimed by the Sahara-based Islamist militant group al-Mourabitoun.

The dead in Sevare included nine civilians, five of whom worked for the UN mission in Mali (MINUSMA), as well as four Malian soldiers and four militants.

In the wake of last week's Paris attacks, an Islamic State militant in Syria told Reuters the organisation viewed France's military intervention in Mali as another reason to attack France and French interests.

"This is just the beginning. We also haven't forgotten what happened in Mali," said the non-Syrian fighter, who was contacted online by Reuters.

"The bitterness from Mali, the arrogance of the French, will not be forgotten at all."

France said it was despatching 50 elite counter-terrorism officers to Bamako imminently.

For rolling updates follow EWN's live blog.

Additional reporting by Reuters.