- Associated Press - Saturday, August 8, 2015

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) - The first attack by Islamic extremists in a central Mali town, in which 10 people died, shows that jihadist aggressions are spreading in the country and hitting more directly at the government military and the U.N. peacekeeping force, an expert said Saturday.

Three of the attackers also were killed, and seven suspected militants were detained, the government said. Four U.N. employees were rescued.

Additional U.N. personnel may still be missing, said a U.N. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of lack of authorization to speak to the press.

The militants first targeted the army camp in Sevare on Friday but when they faced resistance they moved to the nearby Hotel Debo before assaulting the Hotel Byblos, popular with U.N. staff, to take hostages, said a Mali government report, according to the U.N. official.

Sevare, a garrison town about 600 kilometers (375 miles) northeast of the capital, Bamako, is at the heart of Mali’s tourism industry and up until now had not been targeted in the attacks more common in the northern towns of Gao and Timbuktu.

“It’s a troubling sign that the armed Islamist groups are intent on stepping up the pressure both on the Malian government and on the U.N. and French presence,” said Bruce Whitehouse, Mali expert and associate professor at Lehigh University. “They want to show they are not just contained within the north and that they’re not afraid to confront their primary enemies where they’re strongest.”

Whitehouse said the attack was likely intended “to signal all Malians everywhere that neither their government nor the U.N. can keep them safe,” but he noted the rapid response by Mali’s forces.

The attackers may be followers of Amadou Koufa, a leader who has been linked to attacks on Mali’s army including a January attack that killed 10 soldiers in Nampala, said Col. Souleymane Maiga, chief spokesman for the military.

The four rescued U.N. employees are two South Africans, a Russian and a Ukrainian who are all in good health, said U.N. mission in Mali spokeswoman Radhia Achouri.

“Our contractors survived because at no time was their presence discovered by the terrorists in the hotel,” she said adding there was not much resistance Saturday morning during the rescue by special forces.

In a statement later Saturday, the U.N. mission in Mali said five of its contractors died, including a Malian driver, a Nepalese, a South African and two Ukrainians. The bodies will be taken to Bamako, it said.

Military spokesman Col. Maiga confirmed that these five - earlier thought to be hotel workers - were among those found dead Friday and after the operation Saturday morning.

The 13 total dead also included five Malian soldiers and three of the attackers, he said.

The 38-year-old South African who died in the attack worked for an aviation company that was assisting the U.N. contingent in Mali, Nelson Kgwete, spokesman for South Africa’s foreign ministry, said on Twitter.

Islamic extremists took over Mali’s north in 2012. A French-led offensive ousted them from the northern cities in early 2013. Remnants of the extremists have staged attacks on U.N. peacekeepers and Malian forces.

Mali’s jihadi groups have been stepping up their attacks further south. The most recent extremist attack in the capital occurred in March when masked gunman opened fire in a restaurant popular with foreigners, killing five people.

Petesch reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writer Christopher Torchia in Johannesburg and Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed to this report.

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