Bamako - At least 12 people, including a South African and three other foreign UN contractors, have been confirmed dead in a hostage siege at a hotel in central Mali that ended after government troops stormed the building on Saturday.
"There are 12 dead in all," an army officer told AFP after the operation at the Hotel Byblos in Sevare, listing the fatalities as five "terrorists", five soldiers and "two white people".
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A senior source in the Malian army said the final toll had yet to be confirmed and would "probably" be higher.
The UN mission in Mali MINUSMA for its part said two Ukrainians, a Nepalese and a South African were killed in the almost 24-hour-long drama, as well as a Malian driver working for a company contracted by the mission.
Rescued South Africans
It said four other UN contractors - two South Africans, a Russian and a Ukranian - were rescued and were in "good health."
"The attackers did not detect their presence in the hotel and MINUSMA was in permanent contact with them throughout the attack and until its end," it added.
The Department of International Relations and Co-operation said a 38-year-old man from Pretoria was killed in the siege while two other South Africans were safe.
He was identified as Roelof Janse van Rensburg. A foreign ministry spokesperson said he was working for an aviation company hired by MINUSMA.
The Ukrainian foreign ministry said four of its nationals were caught up in the attack, one of whom was killed. One managed to escape while the other two were rescued in the dawn raid by security forces.
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UN chief Ban Ki-moon denounced the attack, which comes as Mali is seeking to implement a June peace deal despite continuing unrest from militant groups and a spike in jihadist attacks.
"This attack will not lessen the determination of the United Nations to accompany the Malian people in their efforts to implement the peace agreement," his spokesperson said in a statement.
The US issued a statement that "strongly condemns" the attack, branding it "deplorable". France also denounced "in the strongest possible terms" the siege and reiterated its support for the Malian security forces and MINUSMA "in the fight against terrorism".
Located a few kilometres from the regional capital Mopti, Sevare is a key staging post on the road to Mali's desert north which fell to Islamic extremists in 2012.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the assault, which began when gunmen burst into the hotel at around 07:00 on Friday. At least one of the attackers was said to be wearing a belt of explosives.
Malian forces cordoned off the area but their efforts to dislodge the attackers were complicated by the presence of hostages.
There were exchanges of fire throughout Friday and the army brought the siege to an end early on Saturday, with one source saying foreign special forces were also involved.
The UN mission said the initial target of the attack was a Malian military site.
"The attackers, who were pushed back by the Malian armed forces, then took refuge in a hotel," MINUSMA said.
A Ukrainian hostage who managed to escape from the hotel said up to five gunmen had led the hostage-taking in Sevare, which lies 620km northeast of the capital Bamako.
Four Malian soldiers who lost their lives in the attack were buried in the town on Saturday in front of a large crowd of mourners, a local resident told AFP.
"As for the bodies of the hostage takers, they have been left where they are. No one has touched them," the man, who did not wish to be named, said by phone.
The walls of the Byblos hotel were riddled with bullet holes after the attack. The body of an unidentified man was seen lying outside the building near a burnt-out van, pictures from the scene showed on Saturday.
The attack was the third in Mali in just a week as it battles a resurgence in jihadist violence two years after a French-led offensive routed Islamist groups from their northern strongholds.