Gunmen have taken about 170 people hostage inside the Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali’s capital, Bamako, with at least three deaths reported.
The hotel chain said two armed men have locked in about 140 guests and 30 employees.
The attackers, carrying AK-47s, arrived around 7 a.m. in a vehicle or vehicles with diplomatic plates, said Olivier Saldago, a spokesman for the United Nations mission in Mali.
The gunmen fired as they entered the hotel, and the gunshots went on for several minutes, said witness Amadou Keita, who works at a cultural center close by.
Two Malian nationals and a French national have died, a U.N. official said without elaborating.
Malian soldiers, with help from U.N. troops, have the hotel surrounded. They were able to free a few hostages, a journalist for ORTM, the state television, told CNN from the scene.
Among them were three U.N. staff members, a source told CNN. It’s unknown how many other staffers remain inside.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the incident.
The timing of the attack is troubling because it comes just a day after French President Francois Hollande praised his troops for successfully fighting Islamists in the African nation.
“France is leading this war with its armed forced, its soldiers, its courage. It must carry out this war with its allies, its partners giving us all the means available, as we did in Mali, as we are going to continue in Iraq, as we’ll continue in Syria,” he said.
Mali is a former French colony.
At Mali’s request, France launched an offensive in 2013 after radical Islamists seized the strategic town of Konna in the former French colony.
The ground and air campaign sent Islamist fighters who had seized the northern region fleeing into the vast desert.
There are no French troops stations in Bamako right now, the French army said.
Host to a delegation
Saldago, the spokesman for the U.N. mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, said the hotel was host to a large delegation for the peace process.
At least seven Chinese guests are among those held hostage, Chinese media reported.
One of them exchanged instant messages with a reporter from the Xinhua news agency and said he heard multiple gunshots outside his room and then smelled smoke.
China has been expanding its presence in Africa in recent years, investing and building large-scale infrastructure projects throughout the continent.
Many Chinese businesspeople also see opportunities in Africa and have been flocking there.
In August, 12 people — including five Malian soldiers — were killed in a hostage situation and ensuing battle at a hotel in Sevare in central Mali.
The soldiers stormed the hotel to end a daylong siege that started when gunmen raided the hotel after attacking a military site nearby, witnesses said.
In that incident, the attackers were affiliated with the Macina Liberation Movement.
Human Rights Watch has described the group as Islamists who commit “serious abuses in the course of military operations against Mali’s security forces.”
The Radisson Blu Hotel is about 15 minutes from Bamako Senou International Airport. It has 190 rooms and suites.
CNN’s Margot Haddad in Paris and Elizabeth Joseph in Hong Kong contributed to this report.
By Ed Payne