A Russian and a Ukrainian were among those being held inside the Byblos Hotel, officials from their countries stated. There were up to eight other captives and South African and French citizens had also been staying there, government officials said.

The attack well south of the Islamic militants' Saharan desert strongholds highlights the threat posed by remnants of an al Qaeda-linked insurgency that appears to be stepping up a campaign against Malian troops and United Nations personnel.

Yesterday's violence began with a raid on a military site in the town of Sevare, around 600 km (400 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako, that was successfully repelled by government troops, according to Mali's UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA.

The attackers then stormed the hotel near the airport before 8 am (0800 GMT), according to witnesses. Smoke rose from the hotel and heavy weapons fire rang out through the day as government forces attempted to dislodge the gunmen. The body of a white male victim was visible in front of the hotel, a town resident cited.

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