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CNN Reports al Qaeda Attack In Burkina Faso

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By Pierre Meilhan and Basidou Kinda

CNN

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (CNN) -- Six gunmen stormed a hotel frequented by Westerners in the capital of Burkina Faso late Friday, took hostages and exchanged fire with security forces, the gendarmerie said, according to the country's state broadcaster, RTB.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb immediately claimed credit for the assault that had similarities to a November hotel attack in nearby Mali that left 22 dead, reported a Mauritania-based news agency. CNN could not independently confirm that claim.

Witnesses said the attackers wore turbans, were "light-skinned" and spoke a language not native to Burkina Faso, a former French colony in West Africa.

Several bodies were seen outside the Splendid Hotel in the center of Ouagadougou, Burkinabe police said, and fires burned outside the hotel, according to photos posted by a Burkinabe private broadcaster. Gunfire could be heard on film.

There were no immediate details about possible casualties or the number of hostages in the attack at the hotel, which is favored by Western diplomats, United Nations employees and business people visiting Burkina Faso.

Burkinabe security forces circled the hotel and were joined by a group of American and French soldiers, a journalist at the scene told CNN.

At least one U.S. soldier was on the scene, a U.S. defense official told CNN. France requested immediate support from U.S. soldiers and a U.S. drone will be flown over the scene to provide surveillance, the official said.

Al Qaeda group claims responsibility

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb said it was responsible for the attack, reported the Mauritania-based Al Akhbar news agency and the SITE Intelligence Group.

The attack was executed by the Islamist militant group Al-Mourabitoun group, led by veteran al Qaeda figure Mokhtar Belmokhtar, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb said, according to Al Akhbar. The interim Libyan government reported last June that an American airstrike had killed Belmokhtar.

Al-Mourabitoun had claimed credit for an attack at the Radisson Blu Hotel in neighboring Mali in late November that left 22 people dead, according to the U.N. mission in Mali.

The United States has approximately 75 military personnel in Burkina Faso, including 15 assigned to the U.S. Embassy and about 60 who provide security assistance -- training, advising and assisting -- to the French military in Burkina Faso, the senior U.S. defense official told CNN.

The U.S. Embassy in Ouagadougou said via Twitter that it is aware of the situation. There was no indication if there are any Americans inside the hotel. In a tweet, the embassy urged U.S. citizens to avoid downtown Ouagadougou.

The U.S. defense official told CNN that all Department of Defense personnel were accounted for, and that reports that U.S. military people were sheltering in the hotel were false.

A U.N. spokesman in Ouagadougou, Emile Kabore, told CNN he does not believe any U.N. staffers are staying at the hotel, which is often visited by U.N. personnel in West Africa.

Burkina Faso elected new president in November

A French Embassy spokesman told CNN the embassy is aware of an ongoing operation at the hotel and did not know if any French nationals were inside the hotel at the time of the attack.

The French Embassy said it will send a warning message to French nationals in Burkina Faso to alert them about the situation.

In November, Burkina Faso elected a new president after nearly three decades of autocratic rule followed by a civil uprising.

Roch Marc Christian Kabore won more than 53% of votes. Kabore was a former prime minister of the West African nation.

The West, particularly France, considers Burkina Faso a key ally in the fight against al Qaeda. The country was formerly known as the Republic of Upper Volta, when it was established in 1958 as a self-governing colony under France.

Blaise Compaore served as President from 1987 until he resigned in 2014. Elections in October were postponed because of a failed coup against a transitional government. Kabore was elected in November.

CNN's Barbara Starr contributed to this article.