BAMAKO: Mali's government said Monday five suspected jhadists were in custody after an assault on a popular tourist resort near the capital, Bamako, which left two civilians dead.
Four attackers were killed at the scene, Security Minister Salif Traore told AFP, while 36 hostages were freed following the incident at the Kangaba Le Campement resort on Sunday afternoon, the majority of them French and Malian.
Jihadists constantly target domestic and foreign forces in Mali's troubled north and centre, but attacks on civilians in and around the capital are much rarer, 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 instate a state of emergency which has been in place more or less ever since.
Residents living close to the Kangaba resort had first reported the attack after hearing shots while smoke billowed into the air, with at least one building ablaze, and special forces remained on the scene Monday, Traore said.
A witness interviewed on local television ORTM said he saw a man arrive on a motorcycle who "started shooting" followed by "two or three people" who came in another vehicle.
Others said the assailants had shouted "Allahu Akbar" -- Arabic for 'God is greatest'. So far, no group has yet claimed responsibility.
Traore told AFP one of the victims was Franco-Gabonese and that the attack had been staged by suspected jihadists.
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, telling a France-Africa summit in Bamako.
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 quotidian instability, one soldier was killed and another 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 a 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission and some of the 4,000 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 the force has been resisted by Washington which says the resolution is too vague and believes a simple statement would suffice.
As the leading financial contributor to UN peacekeeping operations, Washington also wants to tighten overall spending.
EU Foreign Affairs chief Federica Mogherini, who has already 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 gaining strength and extending their reach in the region, notably in central Mali.