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Al Qaeda Militants Stopped for Beers Before Launching Deadly Beach Attack in Ivory Coast

Four men arrived in a Ford saloon car at a beachside bar around noon on Sunday, according to a waiter at the establishment, before launching the attack that killed 18 people.
March 15, 2016, 12:25pm
Photo by Joe Penney/Reuters

Gunmen from al Qaeda's North African branch drank beer at a beachside bar before launching a shooting rampage at an Ivory Coast resort town on Sunday that left at least 18 people dead, the group's third major attack in West Africa in four months.

As the country enters a three-day mourning period, details are beginning to emerge about the attack — the furthest yet from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's (AQIM) desert base in southern Algeria and northern Mali.

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Fifteen civilians and three members of the special forces were killed and 33 people were wounded in the attack in the popular beach town of Grand Bassam, which draws Ivorian and western visitors alike just 25 miles east of the economic capital Abidjan. As of Monday, authorities said an additional 26 people were reportedly receiving treatment for injuries sustained in the attack. Three militants also died in the attack on the resort town.

Four men arrived in a Ford saloon car at the beachside bar around noon on Sunday, according to Christian Eddy, a waiter at the establishment. Two remained outside, while the two others drank beers inside for around a half hour before launching the attack.

"They didn't speak French. They spoke Arabic. We communicated with them in English …. The guys who were still outside started shooting and the two seated at the table yelled 'Allahu Akbar' and flipped over the table," he told Reuters, saying the first victim was a boy who was made to kneel before he was shot. Bar staff tried to warn a deaf boy who was playing nearby.

"People were yelling 'Come over here!' But he didn't know what was happening and just went down to the water. They shot him in the water," Eddy said.

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The gunmen then moved up the beach and entered several seaside hotels. Surveillance footage from Hotel Etoile du Sud, one of the militants' first targets, shows the initial panic in the hotel bar as the first shots rang out. Staff crouched and then fled along with customers, among them parents carrying babies or leading young children by the hand.

A man, apparently disguised as a waiter in a red waistcoat over a white dress shirt, entered with a rifle, fired at the empty bar and disappeared behind it, where the Lebanese man had been hiding. More gunshots were then heard. Two people died at the hotel, including a German woman and a Lebanese man who were gunned down.

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The first police officers arrived on the scene around 15 minutes after the shooting began, witnesses said. It would be another half hour before special units from the security forces arrived from Abidjan.

The victims included foreign citizens from Burkina Faso, Cameroon, France, Germany and Mali. Among the dead was Henrike Grohs, 51, head of the Abidjan branch of Germany's Goethe Institut cultural body. France's President Francois Hollande said four French nationals were killed in the attack, updating a previous statement from the French government that indicated just one of its citizens had died.

With one of the continent's most promising economies, the cocoa and coffee producer has stabilized since President Alassane Ouattara's 2011 election win sparked a civil war against those loyal to the ousted former leader Laurent Gbagbo. Ouattara, who was re-elected in October, traveled to Grand Bassam on Sunday. He addressed the country on Monday evening.

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"Ivory Coast will not let itself be intimidated by terrorists," Ouattara said in a televised address. "Yes, Ivory Coast is on its feet. Yes, on its feet to combat the cowards and protect its people."

AQIM has flexed its muscles beyond traditional strongholds in recent months. Most recently, the militants attacked a hotel and restaurant frequented by international visitors in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou. The siege and ensuing hostage situation lasted for several hours as Burkinabe troops awaited French backup, leaving 30 dead. In November, militants killed 20 people in an attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in the Malian capital Bamako.

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Ivorian authorities have since increased security in Abidjan, a city of around five million inhabitants, but these efforts did not appear to have extended to Grand Bassam ahead of Sunday's attack.

The recent attacks in the region are generally viewed as targeting France and its allies after Paris intervened militarily in Mali in 2013, to drive out al Qaeda-linked militants who had seized the desert north a year earlier. The former regional colonial power France already has 3,500 troops throughout the region, while 18,000 French citizens live in Ivory Coast and another 20,000 reside in Senegal alone.

Around 800 soldiers man a French military base in Abidjan, which serves as a logistical hub for regional operations against Islamist militancy in the Sahel. The European country has quickly offered its assistance, sending French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve to Ivory Coast on Tuesday for logistical support and intelligence and dispatching counter-terrorism officials to help with the investigation.

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