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More Than 2 Dozen Dead After Attack On Radisson Hotel In Mali

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today, gunmen stormed a hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali, in West Africa. More than 20 people were killed, including one American and two attackers. Malian troops raided the hotel and freed a large number of hostages. French forces and a small number of American troops supported the operation. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us with the latest. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Give us more details. What do we know about how this attack unfolded?

BOWMAN: Well, Ari, what we know is that a number of attackers approached this luxury hotel, the Radisson Blu. And this is a hotel frequented by Westerners in Mali. There are often diplomats, military types.

Now, we're told at least two attackers burst into the hotel and began to take large numbers of hostages - about 170 or so - before Malian troops, along with support from French commandos, went in and began freeing people and looking for these attackers.

SHAPIRO: And there is a group that has claimed responsibility. What can you tell us about this organization?

BOWMAN: Well, it's a splinter group from al-Qaida and the Islamic Maghreb, and that's al-Qaida's Northern African affiliate. They claim responsibility. And it's a group called Al-Mourabitoun. And it made the claim online today before saying it had organized and launched this attack.

Now, the group is headed, interestingly, by Mokhtar Belmokhtar. He's an Algerian. But he was believed killed in a U.S. airstrike back in June. So the U.S. is looking to see if he is, in fact, still alive. But an official also said the suspicion is that it was not launched by the splinter group but al-Qaida and the Islamic Maghreb itself. But, again, at this point, it's uncertain who was responsible.

SHAPIRO: As we mentioned, a small number of U.S. forces were involved. Those troops were stationed there before today's attack. What role were they playing there?

BOWMAN: That's right. There are roughly two dozen American troops in defense - civilian personnel in Bamako. And they're part of a number of U.S. military personnel deployed across Africa. They help fly drones, transport cargo, provide intelligence and do other kind of support jobs. In Mali, they're refueling French aircraft as part of the counter-terror fight.

And defense officials say that at the hotel, one U.S. Special Operations soldier helped out with getting Americans who'd been freed from the hotel. One - another service member was at a joint operation center nearby with French and Mali soldiers. But we're told no American took part in the raid itself.

And also, Ari, in addition, the Americans launched a reaper drone to provide over-watch at the hotel, but I'm told it couldn't get there in time to be of any help. The operation, by that time, was over.

SHAPIRO: So, Tom, how big is the U.S. footprint in this part of the world?

BOWMAN: Well, there aren't that many Americans in terms of numbers, Ari - maybe hundreds. But they're all over the map. Some work out of embassies, like you'd see in many countries around the world. Some are on temporary training missions. And you also have Special Forces troops - Green Berets helping search for guerrilla leader Joseph Kony in Central Africa, training Ugandan troops to go after Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army.

And then, over in East Africa, you have American drones operating out of a base in Djibouti, hitting the Somali-based terror group Al-Shabaab. So really they're all over Africa, doing everything from targeting terrorists to training African troops in medical care.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman on the incident in Bamako, Mali, today in which at least two dozen people were killed. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.