16 killed in attack on Ivory Coast hotels; al Qaeda affiliate claims responsibility

Posted at 12:48 PM, Mar 13, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-14 08:44:25-04

The United States and France have pledged assistance to the Ivory Coast as the West African nation investigates a terror attack that left at least 16 people dead.

Gunmen stormed three hotels Sunday in the beach resort city of Grand-Bassam, officials said. Foreign nationals, including a Frenchman and a German woman, were among the dead.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the attack on a social media account tied to the group.

Two soldiers and 14 civilians were among those killed, President Alassane Ouattara said as he visited the sites of the attack. Six attackers also died, he said.

Popular weekend spot targeted

The attack began shortly after midday Sunday when the beach at Grand-Bassam — about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the country’s largest city, Abidjan — reportedly was packed with people swimming, relaxing and eating at beachside cafes. The area is popular with wealthy Ivorians and Westerners, particularly on Sundays.

Eyewitnesses told CNN they heard sustained gunfire for about 15 minutes and saw people running and screaming from the three hotels.

“Truly, truly it was terrifying,” one woman said. “We never thought it could happen here under these circumstances. It’s truly not easy. It’s not easy.”

A photo posted by Twitter user @lopezdobe showed ammunition magazines and grenades on the ground near the scene.

Attack condemned

The United Nations joined the U.S., French, German and other governments in denouncing the attack.

French President Francois Hollande said that at least one French citizen was killed in the “cowardly attack.”

The White House also condemned it “in the strongest terms,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said.

Both countries have pledged their support to the Ivorian government to find out who was responsible.

The U.S. Embassy in Abidjan reported it had no evidence that U.S. citizens were targeted or harmed.

The French Embassy said it had set up a crisis unit and asked people to limit travel in the area and stay clear of security forces. The British Foreign Office had similar advice.

Al Qaeda offshoot was behind other hotel attacks

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has previously targeted hotels in West Africa.

In the past year, the group claimed credit for hotel attacks in two countries bordering Ivory Coast — Mali and Burkina Faso.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Qaeda’s North African offshoot known as AQIM, has its roots in Algeria.

The al Qaeda affiliate has been stepping up attacks after a downturn in activities.

“AQIM has escalated its operations in West Africa, specifically targeting Europeans, as well as other foreigners, in hotels and resorts,” the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks jihadist organizations, said in an analysis of Sunday’s attack.

But targeting Westerners isn’t the only goal, according to SITE.

“AQIM is also competing with ISIS for reassertion and dominance in West Africa, among other regions,” the group said.