About 10 gunmen shouting Islamist slogans have attacked Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako taking 170 people hostage, a senior security source and the hotel’s operator says.
An official said at least three hostages were dead and 80 hostages had been freed, the state broadcaster said.
There were earlier reports the gunmen had freed some people, including those able to recite verses of the Koran.
Malian special forces entered the building and security services said earlier they had evacuated around a dozen hostages.
“Special forces were able to free around a dozen people,” a security ministry spokesman said.
A senior security source said the gunmen were moving floor by floor through the building.
“They are in the process of going floor by floor, room by room. They’ve now arrived at the seventh floor,” the source said.
The hotel chain Rezidor Hotel Group said it was aware of the hostage-taking.
“As per our information two persons have locked in 140 guests and 30 employees.”
Six Turkish Airlines staff members were among those in the hotel, a Turkish government official said. The official later said three staff had escaped.
China’s official Xinhua news agency reported at least seven Chinese tourists were among the hostages.
French nationals are also captive, a source close to French president Francois Hollande said.
“We are still awaiting more precise information that’s been checked out. French people are present. The president is following the situation closely,” the presidential source said.
Twenty Indian nationals were also among the hostages, an Indian foreign ministry spokesman said.
“Our ambassador has confirmed that 20 Indians are held hostage at the hotel but they are alive,” Vikas Swarup said.
The raid on the hotel, which lies just west of the city centre near government ministries and diplomatic offices in the former French colony, comes a week after Islamic State (IS) militants killed 129 people in Paris.
“Very early in the morning there was gunfire. Apparently it’s an attempt to take hostages,” a security source said.
“The police are there and are sealing off the area.”
Automatic weapons fire and explosions could be heard from outside the 190-room hotel, where security forces have set up a security cordon.
The gunmen screamed “Allahu Akbar (God is greatest)” as they entered the hotel, a security source said.
“It’s all happening on the seventh floor, jihadists are firing in the corridor,” the source said.
In a conflicting account, a security source said as many as 10 gunmen had stormed the building.
At least two private security guards have been injured in the attack, a head security guard said.
The guard said gunmen arrived around 7:00am (local time) in a vehicle and forced through a security barrier.
The hotel chain said it was working with local authorities to end the attack.
“Our safety and security teams and our corporate team are in constant contact with the local authorities in order to offer any support possible to re-instate safety and security at the hotel,” it added in a statement released in London.
The US embassy in Bamako said in a tweet staff had been asked to take shelter.
The identity of the gunmen, or the group to which they belong, is not known.
Al Jazeera has reported the group responsible is the “Ansar al-Din (supporters of religion)” group. The ABC was unable to verify this.
Mali’s president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita cut short a trip to a regional summit in Chad after news of Friday’s attack, his office said.
The shooting follows a nearly 24-hour siege and hostage-taking at another hotel in August in the central Malian town of Sevare.
Four soldiers, five UN workers and four attackers were killed.
Islamist groups have waged attacks in Mali despite a June peace deal between former Tuareg rebels in the north of the country and rival pro-government armed groups.
Northern Mali fell in March-April 2012 to Al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups long concentrated in the area before being ousted by an ongoing French-led military operation launched in January 2013.
Despite the peace deal, large swathes of Mali remain beyond the control of government and foreign forces.