Twenty-seven bodies have reportedly been recovered from the luxury Radisson Blu hotel in the Malian capital, Bamako, after a siege by Islamist gunmen ended.
Malian commandos stormed the hotel after the gunmen took 170 people, including many foreigners, hostage in the capital of the former French colony, which has been battling rebels allied to al-Qaeda for several years.
Dozens of people were reported to have escaped or been freed.
A Belgian national is said to be among the dead. Mali’s security minister says the gunmen are “holding no more hostages”.
Salif Traore said security forces are “in the process of tracking” down the gunmen.
Heavy gunfire was heard from the hotel throughout the day, where the gunmen barricaded themselves on the seventh floor, according to a security source and a witness.
An African jihadist group affiliated with al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Al-Mourabitoun, a group based in northern Mali and made up mostly of Tuaregs and Arabs, posted a message on Twitter saying it was behind the attack.
The claim could not immediately be verified.
State television showed footage of troops in camouflage fatigues wielding AK47s in the lobby of the Radisson Blu, one of Bamako’s most expensive hotels.
Earlier, Minister of Internal Security Colonel Salif Traor said three people had been killed and two wounded by the gunmen, who burst through security at the hotel entrance at 7am, spraying the area with gunfire and shouting “Allahu Akbar”, or “God is great” in Arabic.
Occasional bursts of gunfire were heard as the assailants went through the seven-storey building, room-by-room and floor-by-floor, one senior security source and a witness told Reuters.
Some people were freed by the attackers after showing they could recite verses from the Koran, while others were brought out by security forces or managed to escape independently.
One of the rescued hostages, Guinean singer Skouba ‘Bambino’ Diabate, said he had overheard two of the assailants speaking in English as they searched the room next to his.
“We heard shots coming from the reception area. I didn’t dare go out of my room because it felt like this wasn’t just simple pistols – these were shots from military weapons,” Mr Diabate told Reuters by phone.
“The attackers went into the room next to mine. I stayed still, hidden under the bed, not making a noise,” he said. “I heard them say in English ‘Did you load it?’, ‘Let’s go’.”
The website of the French newspaper Le Monde quoted him as saying the attackers had spoken with a Nigerian accent.
Twelve Air France flight crew were in the building but all were extracted safely, the French national carrier said.
A Turkish official said five of seven Turkish Airlines staff had also managed to flee. The Chinese state news agency Xinhua said three of ten Chinese tourists caught inside had been rescued.
Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita cut short a trip to a regional summit in Chad to return to Bamako, his office said.
French President Francois Hollande said France would “use all the means available to us on the ground to free the hostages”.
A US defence official in Washington said about 25 US military personnel were in Bamako at the time of the incident, and were helping to move civilians to safety.
France said it was dispatching 50 elite counter-terrorism officers to Bamako immediately.
Paris has troops in Mali helping to fight Islamists, but they are based in the desert city of Gao, 950km away.
The identity of the Bamako gunmen, or the group to which they belong, is not known.
“We saw two of the attackers. One was wearing a balaclava. The other was black-skinned. They forced the first barrier,” head of security Seydou Dembele told Reuters. Two security guards were shot in the legs in the early stages of the assault.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has advised against travel to Mali.
The department says it is monitoring today’s development closely. There is no suggestion of any Irish people affected by the incident.
The DFA says its advice has been for Irish citizens to avoid travel to Mali for some time
The Defence Forces say ten Irish personnel currently in Mali are “safe and accounted for”.