BAMAKO, MALI: Two civilians killed in an assault this weekend on a popular tourist resort near the Mali capital, Bamako, worked for the European Union, the bloc's foreign affairs chief said Monday.
Five suspected jihadists have been placed in custody while four attackers were killed at the scene, Security Minister Salif Traore told AFP.
He said 36 mostly French and Malian hostages were freed following the incident at the Kangaba Le Campement resort on Sunday afternoon.
Speaking in Luxembourg, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said the two EU staff victims were a Malian woman and a Portuguese man.
Around 20 members of Mali's special forces remained at the ecolodge Monday, Traore added, continuing investigations at a destination known for its popularity with expatriates on weekends.
Among them were members of the European Union's army training mission in Mali, and of MINUSMA, the United Nations peacekeeping force in the country, which sped up the deployment of Malian and French special forces when shooting began, according to witnesses.
Some of the assailants had shouted "Allahu Akbar" -- Arabic for 'God is greatest' -- other witnesses interviewed by AFP said. So far, no group has yet claimed responsibility.
Meanwhile a Kangaba employee described ushering clients into a hiding place, a possible explanation for the relatively low death toll compared with the lives lost in previous assaults on tourist targets in west Africa.
"When I saw the terrorists, I immediately showed clients an opening where they could hide themselves," said Lancina Traore, describing the vast site where the lodge is situated.
Domestic and foreign forces deployed in Mali's troubled north and centre have been repeated targets of jihadist forces, but attacks on civilians in and around the capital are rare, with the last major incident in November 2015 when gunmen stormed the Radisson Blu hotel.
That attack, which killed 20 people, caused the government to call a state of emergency which has been in place more or less ever since.
Among those saved Sunday were two Spaniards, two Dutch and two Egyptian nationals, according to Mali's security ministry.
The French foreign ministry said it was still verifying the presence of its nationals at the site with one Frenchman missing.
Earlier this month, the US embassy in Bamako had warned about "a possible increased threat of attacks against Western diplomatic missions, places of worship" and other places frequented by Westerners in Bamako.
Back in January, the Kangaba's owner, Herve Depardieu, had complained about the "alarming security information" issued by foreign consulates.
Sunday's attack is the latest in a series of high-profile assaults in north and west Africa targeting locals and tourists, including in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast.
But in a sign of Mali's ongoing instability, one soldier was killed and three wounded on Monday morning in the northern town of Bamba, in what the armed forces said was yet another "terrorist attack".
- New anti-terror force -
In 2012 Mali's north fell under the control of jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda who hijacked an ethnic Tuareg-led rebel uprising, though the Islamists were largely ousted by a French-led military operation in January 2013.
Since then, jihadists have continued to mount numerous attacks on civilians and the army, as well as on French and UN forces still stationed there.
The unrest has continued despite a 2015 peace deal between the government and Tuareg-led rebels that aimed to tackle some of the grievances held by separatists in the north.
Despite the presence of the 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission and French troops serving in a separate counter-terrorism force operating across the Sahel region, instability is growing.
France is pressing the UN Security Council to quickly adopt a resolution to fund and support a new African anti-jihadist force in the Sahel, comprising troops from Mali, Niger, Chad, Mauritania and Burkina Faso.
But Washington says the resolution is too vague. As the leading financial contributor to UN peacekeeping operations, it also wants to tighten spending.
Mogherini, who has promised 50 million euros to back the new force, said Monday that Europeans and Africans were "brothers and sisters" in the mutual fight against terror.
Mahamat Saleh Annadif, who heads the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, recently warned that "terrorists" are extending their reach in the region, notably in central Mali.