Holidaymakers were slow to comprehend Ivory Coast attack

It began like any other Sunday in this beach town: Kingor Nanan was preparing the Jah Live Reggae bar and restaurant for the day. A few customers had arrived, and he was sitting out front.

Then, before 1 p.m., he heard popping sounds, like firecrackers. A man wielding an assault rifle walked through the sandy alley that runs past the club to the beach.

"Everyone was screaming, so many people were outside. And the man, he shot this young man down. Then he took his gun, aimed it at me, looked me in the eye," Nanan said. "He didn't shoot."

The attacker — described by Nanan as an Ivorian with cropped hair and ordinary clothes who spoke French — lowered his gun, turned and headed toward the sound of gunfire on the beach.

"Because I am a Rasta (and not a Muslim), he should have killed me," the dreadlocked Nanan told The Associated Press on Tuesday, sitting on the same wooden bench he was on when he first saw one of the killers. Nearby, in blood-stained sand, a few stones marked where the young man was killed.

When the shooting ended, 18 people had been killed and the Ivory Coast had sustained its first Islamic extremist attack. The dead included three Ivorian special forces members and 15 civilians from at least six countries.

Out on the beach, holidaymakers knew nothing of the scene that was about to unfold.

A man gave swimming lessons in the surf. A newlywed couple sipped beer in a beach hut. Tourists rented lounge chairs. In hotels, people lazed next to swimming pools as waiters delivered drinks and menus.

Even after the first gunshots, most people did not immediately react.

Four staffers in crisp white shirts stood at the Etoile du Sud hotel's beachside bar when a gunshot was heard over jazz music playing on the stereo, according to closed-circuit TV footage obtained by AP. The four turned their heads to look. Only one immediately ran away. The other three moved only after there were more gunshots, screams of alarm and guests streaming in from the shore.

Some of the people ran, others walked holding the hands of children. One woman balanced a box on her head. A man in a bathing suit ran in and crouched behind the bar, going off camera.

Moments after the last customers left the bar, a young black man in a white shirt and red vest and carrying a Kalashnikov entered, went around the bar and fired three shots off-camera, killing the man hiding behind the counter. The jazz eerily continued to play as a breeze ruffled tablecloths in the now-empty bar.

At the Wharf Hotel, Isaac Ouattara, the manager, was seating guests for lunch when he first heard gunfire. When he realized what was happening, he shouted for everyone to run from the dining area and hide in the hotel. Rooms filled up quickly, some with as many as 40 people, Ouattara said.

"We transformed this hotel into a refugee camp," said Ouattara, who went to a second-floor balcony to look out over the beach. He saw three gunmen heading east, shooting at civilians. Some beachgoers who were in the ocean at the time of the attack were able to swim out against the waves to safety, he said. Weaker swimmers, he said, were easy targets.

Ivory Coast's special forces arrived. A commander joined Ouattara on the balcony and communicated via walkie-talkie with his soldiers on the beach, describing the movements of at least two gunmen as they headed toward yet another hotel, the French-run La Nouvelle Paillote.

Patrick Colin, the 56-year-old owner of La Nouvelle Paillote, had also urged his customers to get to safety, running through the beachfront dining area shouting "Save yourselves! Save yourselves!" There were more than 100 people on the hotel's beach when the attack began, Colin said, and they soon dispersed in many directions, leaving behind towels, food and bottles of water and wine.

"I chased everyone away," Colin said. "I said, 'You need to leave. You need to leave.'"

A Frenchman by the pool was shot and killed, and other guests were injured, Colin said.

About 50 people sought shelter inside the hotel, many of them in the kitchen and bar areas. Hiding in a passageway just off the kitchen, Colin watched, worried, as two attackers toting Kalashnikovs — both young black men — calmly approached.

A former soldier in the French army, Colin considered drawing his 9mm pistol, but he decided not to when he saw how many ammunition cartridges were stuffed into the assailants' vests.

Spotting a door leading to the kitchen that was only partially closed, one of the gunmen opened fire, killing a woman who worked for the United Nations, Colin said.

In the nearby bar, beachgoers crouched on the floor, trying to hide. Ivorian officers had not yet arrived at the hotel. The gunmen paused at a table just outside the bar and drank from an abandoned water bottle, Colin said.

But before they could go inside and carry out a slaughter, security forces reached the hotel. Among the responders was Sgt. Siaka Bakayoko, an Abidjan-based member of an elite security unit. He was in Grand-Bassam visiting family when he saw crowds running into town from the beach and heard people shouting, "They're attacking!" He went to the local police station and was given a Kalashnikov.

He and other officers traced the attackers' path of carnage, having to ignore the wounded in order to kill or capture the gunmen.

"These were people who had just come for a swim," Bakayoko told the AP later. "I really wanted to help the people who had been wounded."

Instead, he moved along the beach with the team that eventually arrived at La Nouvelle Paillote. Once there, Bakayoko opened fire on a gunman who had positioned himself behind a short concrete wall that blocked off the dining area from adjacent property. He thinks his bullets may have killed the extremist.

"I was trained for this," he said.

Both of the jihadis at La Nouvelle Paillote were shot and killed, their blood still staining the sand a day later.

The assailants were "neutralized" by 2:45 p.m., the government said. Officials and witnesses say the toll would have been far higher had it not been for security forces' swift response and twists of fate.

Wharf Hotel manager Ouattara, for example, said it was fortunate the gunmen did not try to enter his hotel's rooms, where they would have found scores of people trapped inside with nowhere to run.

"If they had come here," he said, "it would've been total carnage."


Associated Press journalist Christin Roby contributed reporting from Grand-Bassam.