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Malian troops take position outside the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako on Nov. 20, 2015. Gunmen went on a shooting rampage at the luxury hotel in Mali's capital Bamako, seizing 170 guests and staff in an ongoing hostage-taking that has left at least three people dead.HABIBOU KOUYATE/AFP / Getty Images

A long-time nemesis of Canada, the one-eyed terrorist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, has emerged as a key figure behind an attack that has killed at least 27 people in a luxury hotel in Mali and threatens to destabilize a fragile West African democracy.

Mr. Belmokhtar, founder of the Islamist extremist group that claimed responsibility for the deadly assault on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako on Friday, is the target of an RCMP arrest warrant for holding two Canadian diplomats hostage in the remote desert of northern Mali in 2008 and 2009. He's also the mastermind of a 2013 assault on an Algerian gas plant in which two Canadians were among the hostage-takers.

About 170 guests and employees from 15 countries – including Canada – were inside the upscale hotel when assailants stormed it with guns and grenades at about 6 a.m. on Friday.

In photos: Gunmen storm luxury Mali hotel

Nearly 140 people were trapped for several hours until they were rescued by Malian commandos, with support from French and U.S. troops and United Nations peacekeepers. Two gunmen were among the dead at the end of the siege. Several Canadians escaped and none was killed, according to the federal government.

Al Mourabitoun, an extremist group affiliated with al-Qaeda and founded by Mr. Belmokhtar, claimed responsibility for the attack. In a statement, it said it conducted the attack with a longer-established militant group, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Mali has been increasingly under siege from Islamist extremist groups. Radical militias seized control of northern Mali in 2012 and were surging south toward the capital in early 2013, until French troops intervened and helped Malian forces to push them back.

Extremist attacks have continued, and at least 342 people are reported to have died in terrorist attacks or military clashes in Mali this year alone. By damaging tourism and foreign investment in Mali, the attacks could jeopardize the stability of an important West African democracy.

The capital, Bamako, was considered safe until this year, but terrorists have now attacked a restaurant and a hotel in Bamako in the past nine months. Al Mourabitoun has claimed responsibility for the restaurant attack in March, which killed five people, and an assault on a hotel in the town of Sévaré that killed 17 people, including five UN staff, in August.

Among those who escaped the hotel attack on Friday were Americans, Indians, Algerians, Russians, Belgians, Germans, Chinese and French nationals. Chinese authorities said three Chinese were killed and four escaped.

Maxime Carrier-Légaré, an employee of the Quebec National Assembly, hid in his room for three hours after the gunfire began. When armed men burst into his room, he wondered whether he was facing the terrorists. But they were instead his rescuers.

Several guests at the hotel, including Mr. Carrier-Légaré and a Canadian House of Commons employee, Patrice Martin, were part of a delegation meeting local parliamentarians ahead of a gathering of the Francophonie organization.

Another Canadian was Pierre Boivin, a lawyer with an expertise in deals involving natural resources in Africa. His firm, McCarthy Tétrault, confirmed he was safe but wouldn't comment further.

Two Canadian mining companies, B2Gold Corp. and Endeavour Mining Corp., said they had a total of three employees in the hotel at the time of the attack.

Quebec legislature speaker Jacques Chagnon, who spoke to Mr. Carrier-Légaré, said the Quebecker hid in his hotel room for three hours. Smoke started filling his room, forcing him to cover his face with a wet bedsheet. Armed men in civilian clothes then knocked down the door. "He thought they were al-Qaeda members," Mr. Chagnon said. Instead, they were security forces, who removed him and other guests amid gunfire.

"I saw bodies in the lobby," Mr. Carrier-Légaré told a France 24 radio reporter after fleeing the hotel. "It's rather horrible what's happening this morning."

After storming the hotel and moving floor-by-floor through the building, the gunmen holed up on the seventh floor with a number of captives for much of the day.

Sékouba Diabaté, a Guinean singer also known as Sékouba Bambino, told the French newspaper Le Monde that he heard "loud and intense" gunshots from his fourth-floor hotel room when the attack began.

"I first thought it was robbers, but as I realized the intensity of the gunfire, I eventually realized it was military firearms," he said.

"There were shots in every direction from 6 to 8:40 a.m. The gunmen were moving from floor to floor and firing everywhere. Two of them spoke English with a Nigerian accent. I heard them say, 'Is it OK? Did you resupply? I'll go this way, you go that way.' "

The gunmen were reloading their weapons in the room next to his, Mr. Diabaté said. "The whole hotel filled with tear gas. Around 8:30, Malian soldiers came to free some guests, including me. I hesitated for 15 minutes because I was very scared. One Malian soldier had to speak to me in Bambara [the main local language] to reassure me before I opened the door."

With reports from Ian McGugan and Affan Chowdhry in Toronto

Follow the latest updates on Friday's hostage crisis in Mali's capital, Bamako.