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Army: Islamic extremists attack hotel in central Mali

BAMAKO, Mali -- Malian army troops surrounded a hotel that had been stormed by jihadists on Friday in the central town of Sevare as the soldiers tried to save people trapped inside, a defense ministry adviser said.

"There are people inside the hotel that we are trying to save," said Lt. Col. Diarran Kone, the defense ministry adviser.

The hotel is reportedly popular with expats and United Nations workers.

3 Russian pilots were believed to have been kidnapped during the attack, the Reuters news agency reported. However, the Russian embassy in Bomako denied any pilots had been taken, according to Russia's Tass news agency. At least 7 people were killed in the attack.

The militants exchanged fire with the army near the Hotel Debo, army spokesman Col. Souleymane Maiga said, and local residents could see smoke and hear gunfire.

"This morning as I was leaving for work I heard shots and saw smoke coming from the Hotel Debo. The area is surrounded by soldiers who told us to return to our homes," said a local resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Attacks by extremists on Malian army positions have moved into central and southern Mali this year.

On Saturday, two Malian soldiers were killed and five were injured when their convoy was ambushed in the center of the country on the road between the towns of Nampala and Diabaly.

In March, a masked gunman opened fire at a restaurant popular with foreigners in Bamako, the capital, killing five people. And in late June, gunmen killed three soldiers in a village near the border with Mauritania, then the next day briefly occupied a village near the border with Ivory Coast. The Ansar Dine extremist group later said it was behind those attacks.

Mali's north fell under the control of Islamic extremists following a military coup in 2012. A French-led military intervention in 2013 scattered the extremists. The region remains insecure despite the presence of U.N. peacekeepers.

Mali's government signed a peace deal with Tuareg separatist rebels earlier this year.

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