Bamako - Malian security forces on Saturday stormed a hotel used by United Nations staff and freed four hostages held there by suspected Islamist militants who had killed at least six people during their attack.
The gunmen had seized the Byblos Hotel in the town of Sevare, around 600km northeast of the capital Bamako, early on Friday and held off troops surrounding the building for nearly 24 hours.
The attack, far to the south of the Islamist militants' traditional desert strongholds, was the latest in what appears to be a growing campaign against Malian troops and UN personnel by remnants of an al Qaeda-linked insurgency.
"[The siege] seems to be over and it has ended well," said a Malian defence ministry spokesperson, Colonel Diaran Koné. "We freed the four hostages. But unfortunately we also found three bodies at the site."
He did not give the nationalities of the freed hostages or the dead.
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Ukraine and Russia previously confirmed that their citizens were among the hostages. Russian news agencies, citing a press attache at Moscow's embassy in Mali, said a Russian hostage employed by the airline UTair was among those freed on Saturday.
South African and French nationals are also believed to have been staying at the hotel, Malian military officials said.
A French foreign ministry official said Paris was attempting on Saturday to verify whether any of its citizens had been among the hostages.
Malian officials said late on Friday that five soldiers and an employee from the country's Minusma UN mission had been killed in the militants' attack.
Three attackers, including one strapped with explosives, also died, military sources said. Seven suspects have been arrested in connection with the attack, according to a government statement.
Small arms fire
Describing the security forces' operation early on Saturday, a Sevare resident living near the hotel told Reuters: "The assault ... took place between 04:00 and 05:00 this morning (04:00-05:00 GMT). We didn't hear heavy weapons this time. There was just some small arms fire."
On Friday Malian forces had used heavy weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, in a failed attempt to dislodge the gunmen that then gave way to the prolonged stand-off.
The resident and a Malian military source said a special unit of the Malian gendarmes had carried out Saturday's pre-dawn raid.
Koné, the defence ministry spokesperson, said that French forces had backed the operation. But a French army spokesperson said French soldiers had not been directly involved in the assault on the hotel.
"We played a co-ordination role with Minusma and the Malian armed forces, but this is a normal role that we play all the time," the official said.