Ivory Coast tightens security

2016-03-14 21:56
A police investigator works in front of the Hotel Etoile du Sud in Grand Bassam, Ivory Coast. (Issouf Sanogo, AFP)

A police investigator works in front of the Hotel Etoile du Sud in Grand Bassam, Ivory Coast. (Issouf Sanogo, AFP)

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Grand-Bassam - Ivory Coast authorities ordered three days of mourning and tightened security at public places and at its borders on Monday as the death toll from the first jihadist attack on its soil climbed to 18.

"Their aim was to frighten us, we will not let ourselves be scared," said Interior Minister Hamed Bakayoko after emergency government talks.

Armed with grenades and assault rifles, gunmen on Sunday stormed three hotels and sprayed the beach with bullets in the resort of Grand-Bassam, a sleepy town popular with expats just a short 40km drive from the commercial capital Abidjan.

The attack claimed by Al-Qaeda left 15 people dead, including foreigners, along with three special forces troops. A total of 33 people were injured, 26 of whom are still in hospital.

"Three terrorists were killed," Bakayoko added.

Asked whether more gunmen were involved - some witnesses had reported six attackers - the minister said "we're still looking. We don't suspect more but we're making sure we carry out the widest possible sweep."

Along with a three-day national mourning starting on Monday, he said the West African nation would boost security at "strategic sites and in public places... [such as] schools, embassies, international institutions... and the borders."

In the latest such jihadist assault in West Africa, witnesses described the panic as gunfire rang out across the sand and an assailant shouted "Allahu Akbar" - Arabic for "God is greatest".

'I thought this was it'

Condemnation 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" 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.

Among the dead were a French and a German citizen as well as two other foreigners. A Ukrainian soldier serving with the 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.

Fears run high

The US-based SITE Intelligence Group said Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), 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."

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.

Read more on:    aqim  |  ivory coast  |  west africa

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