Four UN contractors were freed in the pre-dawn raid, but Mali's U.N. peacekeeping operation MINUSMA said five people associated with the mission had died, while Malian officials counted three hostages dead. Five soldiers and four gunmen, including one who officials said had been strapped with explosives, were also killed, a Defence Ministry spokesman said.  

The gunmen had seized the Byblos Hotel in the town of Sevare, around 600 km (375 miles) northeast of the West African nation's capital Bamako, early on Friday and held off government troops who quickly surrounded the building.

The attack was the latest in what appears to be a growing campaign against Malian soldiers and UN personnel by remnants of an al Qaeda-linked insurgency and newly formed local Islamist groups.

Military spokesman Colonel Souleymane Maiga said the early suspicion was that the Massina Liberation Front, whose members are mainly drawn from central Mali's ethnic Peul community, had carried out the attack.

A Sevare resident living near the hotel told Reuters that the security forces had launched their raid between 4 and 5 a.m. (0400-0500 GMT), saying: "We didn't hear heavy weapons this time. There was just some small arms fire."

On Friday, Malian forces had used heavy weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, in a failed attempt to dislodge the gunmen. The resident and a Malian military source said a special unit of the Malian gendarmes had carried out Saturday's raid.

'THEY WERE HIDING'

MINUSMA spokeswoman Radhia Achouri said four U.N. contractors - two from South Africa along with a Russian and a Ukrainian - had been freed: "At no point were they discovered by the terrorists in the hotel. They were hiding."

She said the five personnel associated with the mission who had been killed were a Nepalese, a South African, two Ukrainians and a Malian. South Africa's Foreign Ministry confirmed that two of its citizens were safe while a 38-year-old Pretoria resident working for an aviation company contracted to MINUSMA had died.

Malian military and government officials had earlier said three hostages, from South Africa, Russia and Ukraine, had died. Ukraine's Foreign Ministry also said in a statement that one of its citizens was believed to be dead while three others had escaped or been freed.

In Washington, the White House strongly condemned the attack and expressed its condolences to the families of the victims.

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