4 hostages freed from Mali hotel after standoff leaves 12 dead

Four people held in a hotel in central Mali by Islamic extremists were freed Saturday by the army and special forces after fighting since Friday left 12 people dead, Mali's defense ministry adviser said.

After the operation ended four additional bodies were found in the Hotel Byblos in Sevare, including three hotel staff and one jihadi, said Lt. Col. Diarran Kone. Officials had earlier announced that five Malian soldiers were killed, two jihadis and a U.N. contractor, bringing the total death toll to 12.

"The operation ended around 5 a.m.," he said. "The operation was led by Mali's gendarmerie with our partners."

The four freed were U.N. employees, said U.N. mission in Mali spokeswoman Radhia Achouri. She would not give their nationalities but said they were at the U.N. offices in Sevare and would soon go to Bamako, Mali's capital.

Mali's special forces were transported to Sevare from Bamako early Saturday. The government said Friday that forces detained seven suspected militants.

Islamic extremists started the attack Friday at the hotel in Sevare, about 600 kilometers (375 miles) north of Bamako.

Northern Mali fell under the control of jihadis in 2012 but a French-led offensive ousted them in early 2013. Remnants of the extremists have staged attacks on U.N. peacekeepers and Malian forces, but Friday's assault on a hotel popular with U.N. pilots marks a serious escalation.

Sevare and the nearby town of Mopti in central Mali have long been the heart of Mali's tourism industry and had been spared the attacks more common in the northern towns of Gao and Timbuktu. Mali's jihadi groups have been stepping up their attacks further south from their strongholds in the north.