At least three hostages were killed this morning as jihadists besieged a luxury hotel in the Malian capital Bamako, according to the country’s security ministry.
Malian special forces have now entered the hotel.
The state broadcaster has said 80 hostages have been freed.
Security Minister Salif Traore told AFP: “Our special forces have freed hostages and 30 others were able to escape on their own.”
Gunmen shouting Islamic slogans attacked the luxury Radisson Blu hotel, popular with foreigners, and took 170 people hostage, the second such attack on a hotel in Mali since August.
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 so-called Islamic State militants killed 129 people in Paris.
The identity of the Bamako gunmen, or the group to which they belong, is not known.
A security source said as many as ten gunmen had stormed the building, firing shots and shouting “Allahu Akbar”, or “God is great” in Arabic.
The hotel’s head of security said two private security guards had been injured in the early stages of the attack, which began at 7am.
The company that runs the hotel, Rezidor Group, said it understood that there were two gunmen.
“According to our information, two people are holding 140 clients and 30 employees,” it said in a statement.
Witnesses in the area said police had surrounded the hotel and were blocking roads leading into the neighbourhood.
Security sources say some hostages were released, including those able to recite verses of the Koran.
A ministry source said about a dozen hostages had been evacuated.
The Department of Foreign Affairs advises against travel to Mali.
The department says it is monitoring today’s development closely. There is no suggestion of any Irish people affected by the incident.
The DFA says its advice has been for Irish citizens to avoid travel to Mali for some time
French nationals are among those held in the siege, according to a source close to French President Francois Hollande.
“We are still awaiting more precise information that’s been checked out. French people are present. The president is following the situation closely,” the source said.
Air France has said 12 crew were in the hotel when it was attacked but are now safe.
A French diplomatic source said France was providing logistical and intelligence support to Mali.
The Chinese state news agency Xinhua said at least seven Chinese tourists were among those trapped inside the building.
Turkish officials have said seven Turkish Airlines staff were trapped in the hotel, but three have now escaped. It is not clear if they fled themselves or if they had been freed.
Twenty Indian nationals are among the hostages, an Indian foreign ministry spokesman has said.
“Our ambassador has confirmed that 20 Indians are held hostage at the hotel but they are alive,” Vikas Swarup told AFP.
The US Embassy tweeted that it was “aware of an ongoing active shooter operation at the Radisson Hotel,” and instructed its citizens to stay indoors.
Northern Mali was occupied by Islamist fighters, some with links to al-Qaeda, for most of 2012.
They were driven out by a French-led military operation, but sporadic violence has continued in Mali’s central belt on the southern reaches of the Sahara, and in Bamako.
An Islamist group claimed responsibility for the death of five people last March in an attack on a restaurant in Bamako that is popular with foreigners.
And in August, 17 people were killed during an attack on a hotel in Sevare in central Mali, 600km northeast of Bamako,that was claimed by the Sahara-based Islamist militant group al-Mourabitoun.
The dead in Sevare included nine civilians, five of whom worked for the UN mission in Mali, as well as four Malian soldiers and four militants.
In the wake of last week’s Paris attacks, an Islamic State militant in Syria told Reuters the organisation viewed France’s military intervention in Mali as another reason to attack France and French interests.
“This is just the beginning. We also haven’t forgotten what happened in Mali,” said the non-Syrian fighter, who was contacted online by Reuters.
“The bitterness from Mali, the arrogance of the French, will not be forgotten at all.”
The Defence Forces say ten Irish personnel currently in Mali are “safe and accounted for”.Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has cut short a trip to a regional summit in Chad to return to Bamako.