Al Qaeda gunmen kill 16 in Ivory Coast beach attack

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Gunmen Open Fire, Kill 16 at Hotels in Ivory Coast Beach Town

GRAND BASSAM, Ivory Coast, March 13 (Reuters) - Gunmen from the North African branch of Al Qaeda killed 16 people, including four Europeans, at a beach resort town in Ivory Coast on Sunday, the latest in a string of deadly attacks across West Africa.

Six shooters targeted hotels on a beach at Grand Bassam, a weekend retreat popular with westerners about 40 km (25 miles) east of the commercial capital Abidjan, before being killed in clashes with Ivorian special forces.

"Six attackers came onto the beach in Bassam this afternoon," said Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara during a visit to the site. "We have 14 civilians and two special forces soldiers who were unfortunately killed."

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Attack on Ivory Coast beach, Grand-Bassam
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Al Qaeda gunmen kill 16 in Ivory Coast beach attack
Locals rest on the beach near Grand Bassam on April 18, 2015. Once an important port, economic, and judicial center of the Ivory Coast, The Historic Town of Grand Bassam, is the first capital of the country to be added to UNESCO's World Heritage List. AFP PHOTO / SIA KAMBOU (Photo credit should read SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images)
Ivorian armed forces arrive at a hotel in the Ivory Coast beach resort of Grand-Bassam after heavily armed gunmen opened fire on March 13, 2016. At least five people were killed on March 13 when heavily-armed gunmen opened fire in the Ivory Coast resort town of Grand-Bassam, leaving bodies strewn on the beach. 'At the moment there are five dead,' a military source said on condition of anonymity after the assault in the resort popular with Westerners. / AFP / SIA-KAMBOU (Photo credit should read SIA-KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images)
Ivorian security forces evacuate people after heavily armed gunmen opened fire on March 13, 2016 at a hotel in the Ivory Coast beach resort of Grand-Bassam. At least five people were killed on March 13 when heavily-armed gunmen opened fire in the Ivory Coast resort town of Grand-Bassam, leaving bodies strewn on the beach. 'At the moment there are five dead,' a military source said on condition of anonymity after the assault in the resort popular with Westerners. / AFP / SIA-KAMBOU (Photo credit should read SIA-KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images)
A photo taken by a witness at the scene shows Ivorian security forces gathered in front of a hotel in the beach resort of Grand-Bassam after heavily armed gunmen opened fire on March 13, 2016. At least five people were killed on March 13 when heavily-armed gunmen opened fire in the Ivory Coast resort town of Grand-Bassam, leaving bodies strewn on the beach. 'At the moment there are five dead,' a military source said on condition of anonymity after the assault in the resort popular with Westerners. / AFP / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
Ivorian security forces evacuate people after heavily armed gunmen opened fire on March 13, 2016 at a hotel in the Ivory Coast beach resort of Grand-Bassam. At least five people were killed on March 13 when heavily-armed gunmen opened fire in the Ivory Coast resort town of Grand-Bassam, leaving bodies strewn on the beach. 'At the moment there are five dead,' a military source said on condition of anonymity after the assault in the resort popular with Westerners. / AFP / SIA-KAMBOU (Photo credit should read SIA-KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Ivorian security forces evacuate people after heavily armed gunmen opened fire on March 13, 2016 at a hotel in the Ivory Coast beach resort of Grand-Bassam. At least five people were killed on March 13 when heavily-armed gunmen opened fire in the Ivory Coast resort town of Grand-Bassam, leaving bodies strewn on the beach. 'At the moment there are five dead,' a military source said on condition of anonymity after the assault in the resort popular with Westerners. / AFP / SIA-KAMBOU (Photo credit should read SIA-KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images)
A man helps a wounded child after heavily armed gunmen opened fire on March 13, 2016 at a hotel in the Ivory Coast beach resort of Grand-Bassam. At least five people were killed on March 13 when heavily-armed gunmen opened fire in the Ivory Coast resort town of Grand-Bassam, leaving bodies strewn on the beach. 'At the moment there are five dead,' a military source said on condition of anonymity after the assault in the resort popular with Westerners. / AFP / SIA-KAMBOU (Photo credit should read SIA-KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images)
Ivorian security forces evacuate people after heavily armed gunmen opened fire on March 13, 2016 at a hotel in the Ivory Coast beach resort of Grand-Bassam. At least five people were killed on March 13 when heavily-armed gunmen opened fire in the Ivory Coast resort town of Grand-Bassam, leaving bodies strewn on the beach. 'At the moment there are five dead,' a military source said on condition of anonymity after the assault in the resort popular with Westerners. / AFP / SIA-KAMBOU (Photo credit should read SIA-KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A photo taken by a witness at the scene shows the victims of a fusillade being loaded on a pick-up truck in front of a hotel in Grand-Bassam, on March 13, 2016 after heavily armed gunmen opened fire. At least five people were killed on March 13 when gunmen opened fire in the Ivory Coast beach resort of Grand-Bassam, a military source and witnesses said. / AFP / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A photo taken by a witness at the scene shows the victims of a fusillade being loaded on a pick-up truck in front of a hotel in Grand-Bassam, on March 13, 2016 after heavily armed gunmen opened fire. At least five people were killed on March 13 when gunmen opened fire in the Ivory Coast beach resort of Grand-Bassam, a military source and witnesses said. / AFP / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
A wounded child is surrouned by Ivorian security forces after heavily armed gunmen opened fire on March 13, 2016 at a hotel in the Ivory Coast beach resort of Grand-Bassam. At least five people were killed on March 13 when heavily-armed gunmen opened fire in the Ivory Coast resort town of Grand-Bassam, leaving bodies strewn on the beach. 'At the moment there are five dead,' a military source said on condition of anonymity after the assault in the resort popular with Westerners. / AFP / SIA-KAMBOU (Photo credit should read SIA-KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Bodies are seen on a beach after heavily armed gunmen opened fire on March 13, 2016 at a hotel in the Ivory Coast beach resort of Grand-Bassam. At least five people were killed on march 13 when heavily-armed gunmen opened fire in the Ivory Coast resort town of Grand-Bassam, leaving bodies strewn on the beach. 'At the moment there are five dead,' a military source said on condition of anonymity after the assault in the resort popular with Westerners. / AFP / SIA-KAMBOU (Photo credit should read SIA-KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images)
UPDATE: weapons found in Grand #Bassam - growing evidence of a jihadist attack #IvoryCoast https://t.co/PgMviNQkNc
#BREAKING: atleast 6 people dead after Gunmen in #IvoryCoast attacked Grand Bassam beach near a popular resort https://t.co/XSHv6ztMgP
Bursts of gunfire heard in a Ivory Coast beach town of Grand Bassam https://t.co/4nnXqNCAll https://t.co/pGVLCv3vss
#Urgent - Côte d'ivoire: Attaques sur une plage a #Bassam à 40 km d'#Abidjan. évacuation de la plage et des environs https://t.co/R8PscBAaFj
Reuters: Police source says at least 12 people including four "Europeans" have been killed in attack on Grand-Bassam resort in #IvoryCoast
#grandbassam #attaquebassam. Some pics of the location of attack I took last month #EtoileduSud https://t.co/Ob2GhyrWAj
BREAKING: Ivory Coast: Witnesses say bursts of gunfire heard in Grand-Bassam, popular beach resort.
PHOTOS: Army evacuating the beach in Grand Bassam following the shooting in #IvoryCoast - @michaelh992 / @lopezdobe https://t.co/QDv1nKcMAD
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A French man was killed in the attack, according to a French foreign ministry spokesman. The nationalities of the other dead was not yet known, but four were European, one officer said during a briefing attended by a Reuters reporter.

The reporter saw the bodies of three white people at Grand Bassam's Chelsea Hotel and another in the Hotel Etoile du Sud next door.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson, who declined to be further identified, said the department was not aware of any U.S. citizen being injured or killed in the attack "at this time."

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has carried out other recent attacks in the region, claimed responsibility for Sunday's shootings, according to the U.S.-based SITE intelligence monitoring group, citing an AQIM statement.

Gunmen all dressed in black opened fire around lunchtime while people were eating and drinking at the beachside bars and restaurants or swimming in the ocean.

"I saw seven dead that I filmed. There were four attackers," said Dramane Kima, who showed the video of the bodies to Reuters.

He also took pictures of grenades and ammunition clips that he believed had been left behind by the attackers.

Security forces moved to evacuate the area surrounding the beach. Bullet holes riddled vehicles nearby and some windows had been shot out.

"They started shooting and everyone just started running. There were women and children running and hiding," said another witness, Marie Bassole. "It started on the beach. Whoever they saw, they shot at."

GROWING THREAT

Barely two months ago, Islamist fighters killed dozens of people in a hotel and cafe frequented by foreigners in neighboring Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou. Gunmen also attacked a hotel in the Malian capital Bamako late last year.

Both of those attacks were claimed by AQIM, raising concern that Islamist militants were extending their reach beyond their traditional zones of operation in the Sahara and arid Sahel region.

Though previously untouched by Islamist violence, Ivory Coast, French-speaking West Africa's largest economy and the world's top cocoa producer, has long been considered a target for militants. It has been on high alert since the Ouagadougou attacks.

French President Francois Hollande on Sunday pledged support, denouncing Sunday's shootings as a "cowardly attack."

"France will bring its logistical support and intelligence to Ivory Coast to find the attackers. It will pursue and intensify its cooperation with its partners in the fight against terrorism," Hollande said in a statement. (Additional reporting by Joe Bavier, Writing by Edward McAllister, Editing by Ruth Pitchford)

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