BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — The assault on a luxury hotel in Mali's capital that killed 19 people was a clear attempt to derail a fragile peace process meant to stabilize the country's volatile north, a representative of northern separatist groups said Sunday.
Halting peace negotiations have been dragging on between the central government and northern separatist groups for more than two years in an effort to end the disputes that turned large sections of the country into haven for radical Islamic militants.
The talks have shown some promise in recent months and the Radisson Blu hotel attacked by two gunmen on Friday had been set to host a meeting on implementing the latest accords.
"The attack was targeting the peace agreement," said Sidi Brahim Ould Sidati, a representative of the Coordination of Azawad Movements, known by its French acronym CMA. The CMA is a coalition of groups seeking autonomy in northern Mali including ethnic Arabs and Tuaregs.
"The jihadis are in different groups but their goal is the same, and that's to hinder implementation of the peace accord," Sidati said.
It was the secular separatist groups that first wrested northern Mali from the government in 2012, using weapons looted from arsenals in neighboring Libya, but they were soon overtaken by al-Qaida-allied radicals.
In 2013, the French pushed the Islamist extremists to the fringes of the vast Sahara though they continue to carry out attacks on U.N. peacekeepers and even in the capital itself.
The peace talks between the government and the separatists excluded the radicals, who have spoken out against the negotiations, accusing them of betraying the population's desire for independence.
The hotel attack was claimed by the Al-Mourabitoun (The Sentinels) radical group which has links to al-Qaida and it said attacks would continue until the government ended its "aggression against our people in the north and the center of Mali."
The attack began at around 7 a.m. Friday morning, when two gunmen armed with assault rifles and explosives attacked just as guards who had worked the night shift were preparing to hand over to a new team.
The two young gunmen quickly overpowered the guards and moved into the hotel as terrified guests scrambled out of the dining room where they were having breakfast and tried to hide in the kitchen.
Malian troops backed by French and American forces then assaulted the hotel in a siege lasting more than seven hours that involved clearing the building floor by floor.
The timing of the attack suggested a well-planned operation that analysts said could have been an attempt by al-Qaida and its Al-Mourabitoun allies to assert its relevance amid high-profile assaults by the rival Islamic State group, including the Nov. 13 attacks on Paris that killed 130 people.
The separatists and other analysts say, however, that it may have been an effort to derail Mali's fragile recovery.
Jean-Herve Jezequel, with the International Crisis Group, said it was a "new element" for Al-Mourabitoun to position itself as defenders of the northern region — as though it was a national movement rather than just a terror group.
Sidati said he suspected this type of rhetoric was intended to help the extremists get as many recruits from northern Mali as possible.
In the northern Mali regions of Timbuktu and Kidal, new leaflets were distributed on Saturday warning against collaboration with the Malian army, France and the United Nations peacekeeping mission, he added.
Associated Press writer Robbie Corey-Boulet contributed to this report from Abidjan, Ivory Coast.