Security forces have reportedly launched a counterassault on a hotel in the capital of the West African nation of Mali, where officials say gunmen took dozens of hostages and killed at least three people Friday morning.
The situation began around 7 a.m. at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, when two or three attackers with AK-47 rifles exited at least one vehicle with diplomatic plates and entered the hotel with guns firing, said Olivier Saldago, a spokesman for the United Nations mission in Mali.
Two Malian nationals and a French national have died, a U.N. official said without elaborating.
The attack, Saldago said, came as the hotel hosted diplomatic delegations to peace talks in the landlocked country, a former French colony that has been battling Islamist extremists with the help of U.N. and French forces.
There was conflicting information about how many people were in the hotel. The Radisson chain said that as many as 170 people had been there as the attack began, and that 125 guests and 13 employees still were inside by early Friday afternoon.
By noon, the country's state broadcaster, ORTM, reported that at least 80 people had been freed. But Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita released a statement indicating 17 had been rescued.
Malian soldiers and U.N. troops had the hotel surrounded, a journalist for ORTM told CNN from the scene. Two security personnel were injured, Malian Security Minister Salif Traore said on ORTM.
"We're still hearing erratic gunfire," journalist Katarina Hoije told CNN from near the scene Friday afternoon.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
Counterassault underway, French President says
The Radisson Blu Hotel is in an upscale neighborhood outside the center of Bamako, rising high above the dusty streets and surrounding houses. With 190 rooms and suites, it is known as a hub for international guests such as diplomats and businesspeople, and it is a 15-minute drive from Bamako-Senou International Airport.
Security forces have begun a counterassault on the hotel, said French President Francois Hollande, who said he'd been in touch with Malian authorities dealing with the hostage situation.
Hollande, speaking to reporters in Paris, pledged to provide "necessary support" to help Mali resolve the situation.
France on Friday afternoon said it dispatched to Mali an elite paramilitary group trained in hostage rescue and counterterrorism operations.
U.S. special operations forces also are helping "move civilians to secured locations as Malian forces clear the hotel of hostile gunmen," said Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Falvo, a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command.
The attack comes just a day after Hollande praised his troops for successfully fighting Islamists in the former French colony. It also comes a week after France suffered its own high-profile terror attack: Shootings and suicide bombings, claimed by the terror group ISIS, that killed 130 people in and near Paris.
French military involvement in Mali picked up in 2013, when France, at Mali's request, launched an offensive after radical Islamists seized the strategic town of Konna. The ground and air campaign sent Islamist fighters who had seized the northern region fleeing into the vast desert.
There are no French troops stationed in Bamako right now, the French army said.
'I saw bullets on the floor'
Michael Skapoullis, a man who lives near the Radisson Blu, told CNN he was using the hotel's gym Friday morning when he noticed fellow exercisers leaving. He hadn't heard anything because he was listening to music, but he decided to follow.
He walked to a door leading to the hotel lobby, and that's when he saw something was wrong.
"I saw bullets on the floor of the lobby," Skapoullis said. "So I gently closed the door, and ... I went back into the gym" and eventually left the complex.
Diplomats, airline employees were at hotel
The hotel, one of the capital's most modern, is known as a hub for international guests such as diplomats and businesspeople.
As news of the attack spread, media outlets and officials from a number of nations reported that some of their citizens were in the hotel or had been freed. A summary:
• Seven Algerians, including six members of an Algerian diplomatic delegation, are safe after being trapped in the hotel, the state-run Algerie Presse Service reported Friday afternoon. The Algerians were freed during a counterassault by U.N. and Malian forces, the outlet reported.
• Twenty Indian nationals, working for a Dubai-based company and staying at the hotel on a long-term basis, were safely evacuated, Vikas Swarup, a spokesman for India's Ministry of External Affairs, said on Twitter.
• Twelve Air France crew members who were staying at the hotel were safely extracted, the airline tweeted Friday. Air France has canceled all its flights Friday to and from Bamako as a precaution, the airline said.
• Turkish Airlines said at least seven of its employees were staying at the hotel Friday. Six are free, and one still was in the hotel as of early Friday afternoon, the airline said.
• At least seven Chinese guests are among those held hostage, Chinese media reported. At least four of them had been rescued by Friday afternoon, state-run CCTV reported, citing a source at the Chinese Embassy in Mali. One of the trapped Chinese guests exchanged instant messages with a reporter from the Xinhua news agency and said he heard multiple gunshots outside his room and then smelled smoke.
Mali: The long, troubled desert road ahead
Friday's attack comes about three months after 12 people -- including five Malian soldiers -- were killed in a hostage situation and ensuing battle at a hotel in Sevare in central Mali in August.
The soldiers stormed the hotel to end a daylong siege that started when gunmen raided the hotel after attacking a military site nearby, witnesses said.
In that incident, the attackers were affiliated with the Macina Liberation Movement. Human Rights Watch has described the group as Islamists who commit "serious abuses in the course of military operations against Mali's security forces.