Al-Qaida militants struck an upscale hotel and nearby cafe in Burkina Faso's capital late on Friday that are popular with Westerners, taking an unknown number of hostages and forcing others to hide for their lives. AFP reported at least 20 people have died.
Three hours after the initial attack, gunfire could still be heard as soldiers in an armored vehicle finally approached the area where cars had been set ablaze.
The local al-Qaida affiliate known as AQIM claimed responsibility online as the attack was ongoing in downtown Ouagadougou at the 147-room Splendid Hotel, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.
In a message posted in Arabic on the militants' "Muslim Africa" Telegram account, it said fighters had "broke into a restaurant of one of the biggest hotels in the capital of Burkina Faso, and are now entrenched and the clashes are continuing with the enemies of the religion."
Witness Vital Nounagnon told the AP that he saw four men attack the hotel and neighboring Cappuccino Cafe about 7:30 p.m. Another witness who gave only his first name, Gilbert, said that when Burkinabe security forces first arrived, they turned around rather than confront the attackers.
"But we know that the gunmen won't get out of the hotel alive," he said. "Our country is not for jihadists or terrorists. They got it wrong."
A man who works the day shift at the Cappuccino Cafe, Alpha Ouedraogo, had left just 90 minutes before the attack began. He said he had been in touch by phone with other employees and that more than a dozen of them were in hiding and awaiting rescue.
Burkina Faso, a largely Muslim country, has been in turmoil since its longtime president was ousted in a popular uprising in late 2014. Last September members of a presidential guard launched a coup that lasted only about a week. The transitional government returned to power until Burkina Faso's November election ushered in new leaders.
Friday's violence mirrored a devastating attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in neighboring Mali back in November that left 20 people dead. In that case, Malian troops — backed by French and American special forces — swarmed in to retake the building and free terrified guests and hotel staff during a siege that lasted more than seven hours.
While Burkina Faso has largely been spared from the violence carried out by Islamic extremist groups in Mali, a Romanian national was abducted last April.