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Security Forces In Mali Surround Hotel Taken By Gunmen

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's get some perspective now on the hostage situation we've been tracking all morning in Mali. Corinne Dufka, West Africa Director for Human Rights Watch has traveled to and from Mali and its capital, Bamako, for years. She's on the line. Welcome to the program.

CORINNE DUFKA: Yes, thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: What is this hotel, the Radisson Blu, like where the hostages were taken?

DUFKA: Well, it's a lovely, brand-new hotel in one of the nicest neighborhoods of Mali. It is frequented by aid workers, people from embassies, flight crews from Air France and Turkish Air and other airways stay there. It's a lovely hotel. They're one of the nicest neighborhoods.

INSKEEP: And that explains why there was such an international crowd there I suppose, people from India, China, Turkey, France, Guinea, and we're told, around seven, at least seven Americans in that hotel. No surprise I guess.

DUFKA: Yes, that's right. It's considered one of the safest hotels and, of course, since the March attack in Bamako on a nightclub, security has been quite heightened in the capital.

INSKEEP: Does that mean that - and, of course, you don't know the precise situation on the morning of this attack, that there would've been likely armed guards at the entrance who would've been there to confront the attackers?

DUFKA: Yes, there should have been. But we understand, or there's a rumor at least, that the attackers were driving in a car with diplomatic license plates which would have explained them opening the gate and allowing them in.

INSKEEP: Oh, and, of course, if anybody seems particularly important at a checkpoint like that, they'd be let right in. Now how unstable is the country where these attacks took place?

DUFKA: Well, in fact, the instability was complicated in the north since 2012 with the separatist rebellion, and then those separatists, or rebels - victorious rebels were then joined by a number of Islamist groups. So they took over the north in 2012, and then were largely driven out after a French-led intervention in early 2013. Unfortunately though, and despite a peace agreement which was signed in June of this year, which was to have brought all that to an end, security - insecurity has really been growing in Mali. Very disturbingly and worryingly that insecurity has been creeping south. This year - starting in January - there have been attacks in at least three other areas of Mali and the capital Bamako. So it's of concern and it's really disappointing to Malians who really thought that a lot of this was going to come to an end after that peace agreement was signed.

INSKEEP: OK, Corinne Dufka, West Africa Director of Human Rights Watch thanks for your insights really appreciate it.

DUFKA: Sure.

INSKEEP: And let's turn briefly to NPR National Security Editor Phil Ewing. He's in our studios here. And let's remember that Americans were among the hostages, the people who were in this hotel when it was attacked. What's known about them?

PHIL EWING, BYLINE: Yeah, that's right. We know from U.S. officials here in Washington that at least seven Americans have been recovered safely from this hostage situation. But we don't know the total number who might have been in the hotel.

INSKEEP: Recovered safely - so this is something more than we knew just an hour ago.

EWING: That's correct. That's according to the latest information we're getting here.

INSKEEP: And when you say we don't know, that means there could be more Americans, we just don't know either way at this point.

EWING: That is possible.

INSKEEP: Now, how concerned was the United States about the problem of terrorism in West Africa before this attack?

EWING: Washington has been concerned for years. Which is why it's been supporting these operations led by French government, the local African governments in Mali, and CAR and other places with drone overflights to provide surveillance, with cargo aircraft, with refueling aircraft and intelligence support because this is a serious threat, you know, according to Washington.

INSKEEP: The big concern was that local groups would link up with al-Qaida or the Islamic State?

EWING: Yes, that's correct.

INSKEEP: And there's a claim of responsibility, today, by...

EWING: By a group called al-Mourabitoun but we have not been able to verify that.

INSKEEP: OK, Phil, thanks very much.

EWING: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR National Security Editor Phil Ewing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.