January 19, 2016 / 7:03 PM / 2 years ago

Three attackers from Burkina al Qaeda assault still at large

Soldiers stand guard in front of the Splendid Hotel after an attack on the hotel and a restaurant in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, January 18, 2016. REUTERS/Joe Penney

PARIS (Reuters) - Three suspected al Qaeda attackers involved in an assault on a hotel and cafe in Burkina Faso’s capital that killed 30 people at the weekend were still being sought on Tuesday, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said.

Three gunmen were killed in a French and U.S.-assisted operation by Burkina security forces to retake the Splendid Hotel and surrounding buildings following the Friday night attack, which targeted an area popular with foreigners.

Eight Burkinabes, six Canadians, three Ukrainians and three French citizens were among the dead. Other bodies are still in the process of being identified.

“Of the six assailants, three were killed and three others are still being sought,” Valls said in remarks before the French parliament, adding that the attack on Ouagadougou was a reminder of a similar attack in Paris in November.

“This attack was claimed by AQIM. This is further proof that this group is dangerous.”

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on Monday identified three fighters it says were responsible for the attacks, giving their names as al-Battar al-Ansari, Abu Muhammad al-Buqali al-Ansari and Ahmed al-Fulani al-Ansari.

The French troops involved in the operation against the attackers were part of a 200-strong force stationed in the country as part of a regional anti-militant operation.

AQIM claimed a similar attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako that killed 20 people in November.

Some witnesses however reported seeing more attackers. Security forces responding at the scene of events initially believed they were facing a team of 12 gunmen. Gendarmes at the time said they believed at least two assailants were women.

“The investigation is moving forward. Eleven French police and gendarmes are assisting Burkinabe experts with the identification of bodies. There are also five American FBI agents,” Burkina Security Minister Simon Compaore said.

ARRESTS

Authorities in Ouagadougou have already made a number of arrests though some had since been released, said Foreign Minister Alpha Barry.

“In this kind of situation we pick up everyone who could resemble the suspects and then, bit by bit, we verify,” he said.

Leaders from Burkina and Mali have agreed to work more closely to fight jihadists by sharing intelligence and conducting joint security patrols.

Heavily armed security agents on Saturday raided the Ouagadougou home of Mossa Ag Attaher, spokesman for the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) - a Malian Tuareg rebel group. He was questioned but later released.

“What kept coming up was ‘Do you have information on imminent threats to Burkina? Does the MNLA have links with those threatening Burkina?'” Ag Attaher told French radio RFI, adding that he had denied any connection to the attack.

Burkina authorities also arrested Adal Rhoubeid, a politician from Niger who is running for president this year.

“Rhoubeid was in the wrong place at the wrong time and there’s no doubt he will be freed,” said a source close to his family.

Both men are Tuaregs, a nomadic people based in Saharan parts of Niger, Mali and Algeria. A photograph of one of the attackers released by AQIM showed a man of light-skinned appearance, suggesting he was Tuareg or Arab.

Barry would not comment on the arrest, but an intelligence official in Niger said Rhoubeid had been picked up when he returned to the Splendid Hotel, where he had been staying, to collect his belongings.

Earlier on Tuesday, French President Francois Holland paid homage to French photographer Leila Alaoui, who was in Burkina Faso for a report on women’s rights for Amnesty International. Alaoui succumbed to injuries sustained during the attack, becoming the 30th fatality.

Additional reporting by Abdoulaye Massalaki and Souleymane Ag Anara in Niamey, Mathieu Bonkoungou in Ouagadougou; Writing by Joe Bavier

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