An extremist group led by former al-Qaeda commander Moktar Belmoktar, who has been linked to the 2008 abduction of two former Canadian diplomats, claimed responsibility for the attack on a Mali hotel that left at least 21 people dead.

Heavily armed Islamic extremists in the West African country seized dozens of hostages Friday at a Radisson Hotel, but Malian troops, backed by U.S. and French special forces, swarmed in to retake the building and free many of the terrified captives. At least 21 people were killed along with two gunmen during the more than seven-hour siege, a Malian military commander said.

An extremist group that two years ago split from al-Qaeda's North Africa branch, led by Belmoktar, claimed responsibility in a recorded statement carried by Al-Jazeera. The group said it wanted fighters freed from Mali's prisons and a halt on attacks against northern Malians. 

Belmoktar is accused of being the architect of a series of attacks and involvement in a number of abductions, including that of former Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay in Niger in December 2008.

The guests at the hotel included visitors from Canada, France, Belgium, Germany, China, India, Ivory Coast and Turkey. Three Quebecers were among the hostages freed from the hotel.

Many foreigners were in town for a pair of events held by la Francophonie.

Michaëlle Jean, former governor general of Canada and current secretary general of la Francophonie, said she had been scheduled to arrive Saturday. She called it a very difficult day, and said that the 80 countries in la Francophonie must act together in the fight against extremism.

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion and Minister of International Development and La Francophonie Marie-Claude Bibeau issued a joint statement, saying that all Canadians known to have been at the hotel are safe.

"Such indiscriminate acts of violence against innocent civilians are unacceptable and are to be condemned," the statement said.

France stands with Mali

While French President François Hollande did not link the violence at the Radisson Blu Hotel with last week's bloodshed in Paris, he declared that France would stand by the country.

"Once again, terrorists want to make their barbaric presence felt everywhere, where they can kill, where they can massacre. So we should once again show our solidarity with our ally, Mali," he said.

Gunfire continued throughout the day at the hotel, which is popular with airline crews and other foreigners doing business in the capital of Bamako, but the shooting had stopped after dark.


Malian officials carry a corpse outside the Radisson hotel. An extremist group based in the desert north of the former French colony claimed responsibility for the attack. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

Officials would not confirm that the entire complex had been secured by nightfall, although the only activity was firefighters carrying bodies to waiting ambulances.

Malian state television said late Friday night that the government had announced a 10-day state of emergency beginning at midnight as well as a three-day period of national mourning beginning Monday.

Army Cmdr. Modibo Nama Traore said late Friday that 20 people had been killed, including an official with Mali's gendarmerie. In addition, he said five people were injured including two police officers.

Though Traore had earlier said as many as 10 attackers were involved, he said Friday night that there may have been only two gunmen, both of whom were killed. A police officer at the hotel displayed photos of the two dead gunmen, their bodies riddled with bullets.

The siege began when assailants shouting "God is great!" in Arabic burst into the complex and opened fire on the hotel guards, Traore said earlier on Friday. An employee who identified himself as Tamba Diarra said by phone amid the attack that the militants used grenades.

About 170 guests and employees were initially taken hostage, but some apparently escaped or hid in the sprawling, cream-and-pink hotel that has 190 rooms and a spa, outdoor pool and ballroom.

'Intention was clearly to kill'

"It was more like a real terrorist attack," said UN mission spokesman Olivier Salgado. "The intention was clearly to kill, not to necessarily have people being hostage."

Traore said 126 people had been escorted to safety, and that at least one guest reported the attackers instructed him to recite verses from the Qur'an as proof of his Muslim faith before he was allowed to leave.

As people ran for their lives along a dirt road, troops in full combat gear pointed the way to safety, sometimes escorting them with a protective arm around the shoulder. Local TV showed heavily armed troops in what appeared to be a lobby.


The attack took place in Bamako, Mali. An uncertain number of gunmen took hostages after storming the hotel, which had 140 guests and 30 employees at the time. (Google/CBC)

Monique Kouame Affoue Ekonde of Ivory Coast said she and six other people, including a Turkish woman, were escorted out by security forces as the gunmen rushed toward the fifth or sixth floor. Ekonde said she had been "in a state of shock."

Malian special forces went "floor by floor" to free hostages, Traore said.

U.S. special forces assisted, said Col. Mark Cheadle of the U.S. army's Africa Command. At least six Americans were evacuated from the hotel, Cheadle said. U.S. officials were trying to verify the location of all American citizens in Mali.

National Security Council spokesman Ned Price praised the bravery of the Malian, French, UN and U.S. security personnel who responded, adding that Washington was prepared to assist Mali's government as it investigates "this tragic terrorist attack."

A unit of French soldiers was sent to Bamako in support of Malian security forces, the French Defence Ministry said. About 40 special police forces also played a supporting role, France's national gendarme service said.

The UN mission sent security reinforcements and medical aid to the scene, said UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq. A few UN staff were in the hotel but they got out safely, he added.

Reflecting the chaos surrounding the siege, various death tolls were reported during the day. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said 19 people died — 18 in the hotel and one Malian soldier killed in the fighting.

A UN official had earlier said initial reports put the number of dead at 27, but that different casualty figures have been reported and the organization is working with authorities to get an exact total. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the operation was still ongoing.

Attack on France's interests

The attack was perceived by many in France, particularly in the government, as a new attack on its interests.

An extremist group that two years ago split from al-Qaeda's North Africa branch and led by Moktar Belmoktar claimed responsibility in a recorded statement carried by Al-Jazeera. The group said it wanted fighters freed from Mali's prisons and a halt on attacks against northern Malians.


Malian security forces assist two women from an area surrounding the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako on Friday. (Habibou Kouyate/AFP/Getty Images)

The group, known as the Mourabitounes, was formed in 2013 after Belmoktar left al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and joined with a Malian militant group. The statement said the Mourabitounes had attacked in co-ordination with the "Sahara Emirate" affiliated with al-Qaeda.

The French military operation in Mali in 2013 against Islamic extremists who were holding the northern half of the country was the first of several foreign interventions that Hollande launched as president. Those interventions have prompted increased threats against France and its interests from extremist groups ranging from al-Qaeda's North African arm to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

French news websites and all-news TV networks immediately switched from nearly nonstop coverage of the Paris attacks investigation and aftermath to the Bamako siege.

Jens David Ohlin, an international law expert at Cornell University, said France has "invested so much military energy in pushing the Islamic rebels out of Mali."

"While Mali might not have the same emotional significance to the French as Paris does, it is certainly an important part of the French military strategy," he added.

With files from CBC News