BAMAKO: Five people including two Europeans and a Malian police officer were killed in an assault on a Bamako nightclub Saturday, in the first suspected attack targeting Westerners in a city braced for jihadist violence since 2012.
At least one masked gunman entered the club in an area of the Malian capital popular with expatriates around 1:00 am (0100 GMT) and sprayed the venue with automatic gunfire and threw grenades, witnesses said.
No group claimed responsibility for the attack, although suspicion is likely to focus on Islamist rebels operating in Mali´s vast desert north, which has struggled for stability since a coup three years ago.
Customers of La Terrasse, in Bamako´s lively Hippodrome district, described how the masked assailant arrived in a black four-wheel drive and headed to the upstairs restaurant and bar area to begin shooting.
As he left he lobbed two grenades at a security patrol and one went off, killing a policeman, witnesses said.
“The killer came here because there were foreigners. He wanted to kill foreigners, that´s for sure,” a waiter at the venue told.
“This is a terrorist attack, although we´re waiting for clarification. Provisionally, there are four dead — one French national, a Belgian and two Malians,” a policeman told.
The United Nations MINUSMA peacekeeping force later clarified that a third Malian had died.
Hospital sources said eight people were wounded, including three Swiss nationals, one of them a woman.
correspondent at the scene in the aftermath witnessed the French victim being stretchered out of the venue.
In the moments after the attack, the body of a police officer and a guard of a private home could be seen in the street outside, while a little further on the body of the Belgian national was also visible.
Dozens of police officers secured the area but witnesses to the attack were initially refusing to testify, fearing reprisals.
’Death to whites’
A police source said two suspects had been arrested and were being interrogated, without revealing their identities or nationalities.
French President Francois Hollande denounced “with the greatest force the cowardly attack”, according to a statement from the presidency which added that he would meet Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to offer Paris´s help to the former French colony.
“My thoughts are with the victims and their families,” said Didier Reynders, the foreign minister of Belgium, which has confirmed one of its nationals was among the dead.
EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini said one of the victims worked with the European Union in Mali, where the 28-nation bloc runs a mission to assist police and national guard forces.
The gunman killed the Belgian and two of the Malians in the street before entering the club, according to a diplomatic source.
“They reportedly shouted ´Death to whites´ on entering the restaurant… It sounds like an attack against the presence of Europeans. Then they apparently targeted the French national,” the source said.
Zakaria Maiga, who told he was a friend of the French victim, described how they been dancing upstairs when the gunshots rand out.
Maiga said there was immediate panic and he threw himself to the ground, before escaping the club and running to safety.
“Things happened too fast. I did not see the shooter,” he said.
Mali´s vast desert north is riven by ethnic rivalries and an Islamist insurgency.
Jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda controlled an area of desert the size of Texas for more than nine months until a French-led military intervention in 2013 that partly drove them from the region.