BAMAKO, Mali (AP) - Islamic extremists armed with guns and throwing grenades stormed the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali's capital Friday morning, killing at least three people and initially taking numerous hostages, authorities said.
The Brussels-based Rezidor Hotel group that operates the hotel said early on that the assailants had "locked in" 140 guests and 30 employees.
Malian troops reacted quickly. As people ran for their lives near the hotel along a dirt road, the soldiers in full combat gear pointed the way to safety. Within hours, local TV images showed heavily armed troops in what appeared to be a lobby area. Malian state TV reported that 80 people in the hotel when the assault began have been freed.
Malian special forces were freeing hostages "floor by floor," Malian army commander Modibo Nama Traore told The Associated Press. Still, Rezidor Hotel group put out a new statement saying 125 guests and 13 employees were still in the hotel.
Traore said at least one guest eported that the attackers instructed him to recite verses from the Quran before he was allowed to leave the hotel.
It was not immediately clear which Muslim extremist groups might be behind the attack, which unfolded one week after the attacks on Paris that killed 129 people. A handful of jihadi groups seized the northern half of Mali -- a former French colony -- in 2012 and were ousted from cities and towns by a French military intervention.
French President Francois Hollande said: "We should yet again stand firm and show our solidarity with a friendly country, Mali."
Traore said 10 gunmen had stormed the hotel shouting "Allahu Akbar," or "God is great," in Arabic before firing on the guards. A staffer at the hotel who gave his name as Tamba Diarra said over the phone that the attackers used grenades in the assault.
The U.S. Embassy in Mali told citizens to shelter in place amid reports of an "ongoing active shooter operation" at the hotel in Bamako.
Monique Kouame Affoue Ekonde, from Ivory Coast, said she and six other people, including a Turkish woman, were escorted out by security forces as the gunmen rushed "toward the fifth or sixth floor."
"I think they are still there. I've left the hotel and I don't know where to go. I'm tired and in a state of shock," she said.
A top official at the French presidency said French citizens were in the hotel but could not give more. The official spoke anonymously in line with presidency policy.
Belgian foreign minister Didier Reynders said that four Belgians were registered at the hotel but their whereabouts were unknown.
Citing Chinese diplomats in Mali, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported that about 10 Chinese citizens were sheltering inside their hotel rooms. The embassy was in phone contact with them and all were reported safe, according to the report. All are employees of Chinese companies working in Mali.
Five Turkish Airlines personnel were among the freed hostages, Turkey's state-run news agency said.
The website of the official China Daily newspaper also cited an unidentified witness as saying one Chinese citizen had been rescued.
The U.N. mission said it was sending security reinforcements and medical aid to the scene. Ambulances were seen rushing to the hotel as a military helicopter flew overhead.
Even after the French-led military intervention in early 2013 that forced the extremists from northern towns and cities, the north remains insecure and militant attacks have extended farther south this year, including the capital. In March masked gunmen shot up a restaurant in Bamako that is popular with foreigners, killing five people.
About 1,000 French troops remain in the country. The Netherlands also has troops working with the UN mission in Mali. According to the Dutch defense ministry, some 450 Dutch military personnel are taking part in the mission along with four Apache and three Chinook helicopters. Most of the Dutch force is based in Gao, but there are a few officers at the U.N. mission headquarters in Bamako.