Burkina Faso and French forces killed a fourth extremist Saturday after freeing 126 people and killing three other attackers to end the seizure of a luxury hotel by al-Qaida-linked militants, Burkina Faso officials said.
In addition to the extremists, at least 23 people were killed in the attack at the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, the capital, the president said. The fourth jihadist was killed when security forces cleared out a second hotel that was nearby.
Two of the three attackers were identified as female, President Roch Marc Christian Kabore said on national radio.
The State Department told NBC News it was trying to establish if any Americans were caught up in the assault and said the U.S. Embassy in Ouagadougou was "making every effort to account for U.S. citizens in the city."
The Islamic extremists stormed the Splendid Hotel and a nearby cafe Friday night.
Gunfire ramped up early Saturday as gendarme and military forces fought to take back the building which had been blackened by a fire during the assault. The security forces took control of the Splendid Hotel and were searching nearby hotels to be sure no other extremists were hiding. The search continued even after security forces found and killed a fourth extremist at the Hotel Yibi, the president said.
About 33 people have been wounded and the operation freed 126 people after the morning call to prayer signaled a new day in this West African nation, said Minister of Security and Internal Affairs Simon Compaore.
Cars and motorbikes were burned, and overturned chairs and shards of glass lay scattered near the hotel. Onlookers were kept far away from the fighting that continued into daylight.
The harrowing attack was launched by the same extremists behind a similar siege at an upscale hotel in Bamako, Mali in November that left 20 dead.
Dozens of French forces arrived overnight from neighboring Mali to aid in the rescue. One U.S. military member was embedded with French forces at the scene, and the United States was working to help provide France with surveillance and reconnaissance help, according to a U.S. senior defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
An al-Qaida affiliate known as AQIM, or al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, claimed responsibility online as the attack was ongoing in downtown Ouagadougou at the 147-room hotel, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.
In a message posted in Arabic on the extremists' "Muslim Africa" Telegram account, it said fighters "broke into a restaurant of one of the biggest hotels in the capital of Burkina Faso, and are now entrenched and the clashes are continuing with the enemies of the religion." Fighters who spoke by phone later "asserted the fall of many dead Crusaders," AQIM said, according to SITE.
Burkina Faso's Internal Affairs Minister Simon Compaore said that 10 bodies were found inside the Cappuccino Cafe, a restaurant located next to the Splendid Hotel.
"We know that the gunmen won't get out of the hotel alive," said one witness, who gave only his first name, Gilbert. "Our country is not for jihadists or terrorists. They got it wrong."
Burkina Faso, a largely Muslim country, had for years been largely spared from the violence carried out by Islamic extremist groups who were abducting foreigners for ransom in Mali and Niger. Then last April, a Romanian national was kidnapped in an attack that was the first of its kind in Burkina Faso.
The country also has been in growing political turmoil since its longtime president was ousted in a popular uprising in late 2014. Last September members of a presidential guard launched a coup that lasted only about a week. The transitional government returned to power until Burkina Faso's November election ushered in new leaders.
The hotel attack in Mali in November also was claimed by a leader of AQIM, who said it had been carried out as a declaration of unity with Algerian militant Moktar Belmoktar's extremist group Al-Mourabitoun, according to an audio speech that was distributed by SITE at the time. Belmoktar was a former leader in AQIM before starting his own group, which now has merged back with al-Qaida.
In a separate development, Abi Ouattara, spokeswoman for Burkina Faso's ministry of security and internal affairs, says an Austrian doctor and his wife were kidnapped by extremists in the country's north near its border with Mali.
The spokeswoman said the jihadists abducted the two from the town of Baraboule in the Soum province in Burkina Faso's Sahel region.
The ministry did not have immediate information on how long the two had been in northern Burkina Faso, where they were doing volunteer work.