Ivory Coast ministers are to hold emergency talks today after the first jihadist attack in the country left 16 dead at a beach resort popular with foreigners, the latest such Islamist assault in West Africa.
Armed with grenades and assault riffles, the attackers stormed three hotels in the weekend resort of Grand-Bassam, a short 40-kilometre drive from the commercial capital Abidjan.
Witnesses described scenes of panic as gunmen sprayed bullets across the beach, and one told AFP they heard an assailant shouting “Allahu Akbar” – Arabic for “God is greatest”.
Condemnation of the bloodshed came from around the world with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pledging to help government “efforts to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice.”
Former colonial power France blasted “the cowardly attack” and offered to help track the culprits while the United States vowed to fight “terrorists who seek to undermine efforts by West African governments.”
It was the third such attack in four months in West Africa and a blow to a nation working to lure back foreign tourists to its palm-fringed beaches and rainforests as it recovers from a brutal civil war.
“Measures will have to be taken, especially with regard to security,” a source in the Ivorian presidency said ahead of the crisis meeting.
An official source said 22 people were injured while the local media reported some missing.
Among the dead were a French and a German citizen as well as two other foreigners. A Ukrainian soldier serving withe UN peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast was also hurt.
The German victim was named as 51-year-old Henrike Grohs, who headed Abidjan’s Goethe Institute, the German language centre’s secretary-general said.
Grand-Bassam is packed at weekends with visitors drawn by its magnificent beaches and UNESCO-listed colonial-era buildings.
Inside a hotel crowded with expats, an AFP journalist saw a bullet lodged in the front of the bar refrigerator and a large pool of blood on the floor.
Carine Boa, a Belgian-Ivorian teacher at an international high school in Abidjan, was at one of the beach bars with her two sons when the gunmen arrived.
“We were really scared. We thought of the people at the Bataclan,” she said, referring to the concert venue attacked by gunmen during November’s terror attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead.
“I thought this was it for us,” she said.
“I saw one of the attackers from far away,” said Abbas El-Roz, a Lebanese salesman who was in the pool of a hotel when the attackers struck.
“He had a Kalashnikov and a grenade belt. He was looking for people.”
Fourteen civilians and two special forces troops were killed in the shooting spree, along with six assailants, according to Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara.
The US-based SITE Intelligence Group said Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the terror group’s North African affiliate, had claimed responsibility.
AQIM said in a statement three of its fighters had been killed.
Hundreds gathered at the attack site on Monday morning and one woman was in tears as she looked for her missing son, a vendor at the beach.
“He’s not in hospital and not at the morgue,” she said. “I don’t know where he is. He’s handicapped.”
Salata, an ice-cream seller, said she was in shock.
“I couldn’t sleep at night,” she said. “I’m going to get back my ice box from the beach but I’m scared they’ll start shooting again.”
West African nations have scrambled to boost security after jihadist attacks in November and January on upscale hotels in the capitals of Mali and Burkina Faso that were also claimed by the group.
Robert Besseling of Exx Africa, a specialist intelligence company, said the attacks should not have come as a surprise.
“Cote d’Ivoire has been receiving warnings for at least a year from France’s intelligence service that Islamist militants are planning to attack major cities,” said Besseling, using the French name for Ivory Coast.
Amid such fears, the recent annual Flintlock military exercise, grouping African, US and European troops, focused on the need to counter jihadism in the region.
Sunday’s attack also bore grim similarities to the Islamist gun and grenade assault on a Tunisian beach resort last June, which left 38 foreign holidaymakers dead.