In another major expansion of its sphere of operations, an affiliate of al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for an attack that killed at least 14 civilians and two soldiers at a beach resort in Ivory Coast.
The beach outside three hotels at the seaside town of Grand-Bassam was strewn with bodies after the assault by at least three gunmen, who reportedly shouted "Allahu Akbar"– an Arabic phrase meaning "God is greatest."
The heavily armed gunmen, dressed in black and wearing balaclavas, attacked the beach around lunchtime on Sunday as its restaurants and bars were crowded with vacationers. Most of the victims appeared to be Ivory Coast citizens. Four Europeans, including a French man, were among those killed, officials said.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a radical Islamist militia whose traditional stronghold is northern Mali and the edges of the Sahara Desert, swiftly claimed responsibility for the attack.
The attack was reportedly orchestrated by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the notorious leader of an AQIM splinter group who held two Canadian diplomats hostage in northern Mali in 2008 and 2009. He is the subject of an RCMP arrest warrant for his role in the kidnapping.
The group has its roots in the remote desert wastes of Algeria and Mali, but AQIM has dramatically escalated its operations in recent months, targeting cities to the south where it was never previously active. It killed 20 people in an assault last November on the luxury Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali, and then killed 30 at another hotel and restaurant in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso's capital, in January.
The latest attack near Abidjan, the commercial capital of Ivory Coast, is another sign that AQIM is now targeting urban areas, especially those popular among Europeans and North Americans. Six Canadians, who were doing volunteer work for a Catholic charity, were among those killed in the Ouagadougou attack in January.
Grand-Bassam, a former French colonial capital on the Gulf of Guinea, is a historic seaside town and UNESCO World Heritage Site that has become popular with Western tourists and wealthy Ivorians. The resort town is about 40 kilometres east of Abidjan, one of West Africa's most important commercial centres. With its modern skyscrapers and expressways, Abidjan has become the West African headquarters for many large corporations and banks.
In its statement, AQIM said the assault was carried out by three of its members. But Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, who visited the attack site on Sunday, said his forces killed six attackers.
One of the gunmen approached two boys on the beach and spoke to them in Arabic, according to an Associated Press report. One boy knelt and started praying, and was spared. The other boy did not pray and was shot dead, the report said.
After a long civil war, Ivory Coast has been peaceful for the past five years, but it has been on high alert since the attacks in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso.
Islamic State, another militant group, has forged an affiliation with Boko Haram, a radical Nigerian group that has killed thousands of Africans. Some reports suggest that AQIM and Islamic State are competing for power in West Africa.
Another affiliate of al-Qaeda is the Somali extremist group al-Shabab, which launched a spectacular attack on the luxury Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in 2013, beginning the latest pattern of assaults on "soft targets" such as hotels, malls and restaurants.
French President François Hollande denounced the Grand-Bassam killings as a "cowardly attack" and promised to help the Ivory Coast authorities. "France will bring its logistical support and intelligence to Ivory Coast to find the attackers," he said in a statement on Sunday. "It will pursue and intensify its co-operation with its partners in the fight against terrorism."