The men were pilots and engineers contracted by the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, she said. The workers – two South Africans, one Russian and a Ukrainian – were able to avoid detection during the deadly events that left a dozen people dead.
A number of foreigners have been kidnapped by Islamist militants in Mali in recent years, at least two of whom are still being held hostage by al-Qaida’s front group in the region, Aqim. Global media say thirteen people, including several Malian governmental servicemen died in the course of the operation to force the militants out of the hotel.
Four additional bodies were discovered inside the Hotel Byblos, popular with tourists and UN staff, in the town of Sevare after the siege, bringing the death toll to 12.
Human Rights Watch has described the group as Islamists who commit “serious abuses in the course of military operations against Mali’s security forces”.
“The land operation was exclusively operated by the Malian forces”, Radhia Achour, a spokeswoman for MINUSMA, said after the siege ended. A Russian diplomat said a Russian was among the hostages.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry issued a statement based on information from its embassy in Algeria saying that the goal of the attackers was believed to be to take hostages from among the foreign citizens living in the hotel.
A source told AFP that “a number of hostages” were freed by Malian forces, including the five foreigners, although their nationalities were not specified.
The attack at the hotel in Sevare, about 600km (375 miles) north of Bamako, started early yesterday morning.
Friday’s attack, which took place well south of the Islamist militants’ traditional strongholds, highlights the continued threat posed by remnants of the insurgency that have stepped up their attacks on Malian soldiers and United Nations troops.
Five soldiers and four gunmen, including one who officials earlier said was strapped with explosives, were also killed.
The dead included hotel staff, some of the alleged gunmen, as well as the Malian soldiers and UN contractors.
The jihadists exchanged fire with the army near the Hotel Debo, said Col. Souleymane Maiga.
The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has over 10,000 personnel in the West African country. Seven suspects had been detained.
French President Francois Hollande said French citizens could also “possibly” be caught up in the attack, while South Africa said it was “aware of the situation”.
The group had claimed responsibility for two previous attacks in northwestern and southern Mali on June 27 and 28 respectively, in which a total of six people were killed.