WASHINGTON — Five Department of Defense personnel trapped in a luxury hotel in Mali on Friday morning are safe after Islamic militants, armed with guns and grenades, took control of the building for several hours and killed nearly 20 people, according to U.S. Africa Command.

One U.S. special operator aided Mali Special Forces as they moved hostages, including at least six Americans, to a secure location from the Radisson Blu hotel in the northern African country’s capital, Bamako, after militants stormed the building, AFRICOM spokesman Army Col. Mark Cheadle told reporters in Washington.

The Malian troops led the operation to clear the building, and no Americans were reported to have directly engaged with the militants, Cheadle said.

Meanwhile, all DOD personnel — 22 military and civilian workers — in Bamako were accounted for and uninjured, a defense official said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the situation. The five DOD personnel were at the hotel when the siege began.

About 10 militants, armed with grenades and guns, seized 170 hostages in the attack, which was claimed by the jihadi group Mourabitounes. The extremists, who split two years ago from al-Qaida’s North Africa branch, said it wants fighters freed from Mali’s prisons and attacks against northern Malians to stop, according to a recorded statement carried by Al-Jazeera. The statement said the attack was coordinated with the “Sahara Emirate,” which is affiliated with al-Qaida.

U.S. Army Gen. David Rodriguez said Friday morning that an al-Qaida affiliate likely was responsible for the attack and not the Islamic State group, which perpetrated a series of attacks last week in Paris, killing at least 130 people and injuring hundreds more.

Such attacks, Rodriguez said, are a serious concern in Africa, especially in northern Africa, where terrorist groups compete for resources, influence and recruits.

“I think the objective of it is for the sensationalism, the fear that it strikes into people throughout the region,” the general told reporters Friday in Washington. “… It’s also part of their unfortunate ideology and story line. It’s just a horrific ideology and life and they (use it to) draw these people in.”

The U.S. military maintains a small presence in Mali, where French forces have been involved in a long campaign against al-Qaida-aligned militants.

There are 10 U.S. troops stationed in Mali who provide “planning and coordination assistance” for a United Nations stabilization force, AFRICOM said. Six more personnel are permanently assigned to the U.S. defense attache at the U.S. Embassy.

Mali has been in a state of political turmoil since a 2012 military coup that toppled one of Africa’s more stable democracies. The subsequent chaos enabled Islamic fighters and other militants to take advantage of a security vacuum in the country’s north to gain a foothold in the region.

That prompted French forces in 2013 to launch a surprise intervention to counter the militants, who were advancing into Mali’s south.

France has been largely successful in pushing militants out of strongholds, although about 1,000 French forces remain in Mali. Over the years, the U.S. Air Force has provided a range of logistical support to the French troops carrying out the mission.

Rodriguez said the United States will continue to support the French by helping to gather intelligence, conducting surveillance and reconnaissance missions, aiding them with aerial refueling and providing some operational airlift across Mali, Niger and Chad.

Islamic terrorism is primarily a regional threat in Africa, Rodriguez said. The United States in recent years has deployed small teams of military advisers to many African countries to train and assist their military forces to better secure their nations from militant groups and limit their spread.

While groups such as Boko Haram and al-Shabab have carried out attacks in western and eastern Africa, respectively, they’ve shown little ability to spread their influence outside of those regions. The larger threat to the western world out of Africa, the general said, is the Islamic State group in Libya.

Several jihadi groups in Libya have aligned with the Islamic State group, and the militants have moved fighters and leaders between its strongholds in Iraq and Syria, claiming areas of Libya as a part of their self-declared caliphate, Rodriguez said. Though they’ve been largely unsuccessful at pushing their influence beyond Libya’s borders, he added, the “chaos” within Libya has allowed them to thrive there.

“They’ve also stated their intent to use that as a staging base to get into Europe and then beyond,” he said. “That’s the biggest worry right now.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.
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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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