By Joe Bavier
GRAND BASSAM, Ivory Coast, March 14 – Ivory Coast soldiers armed with assault rifles patrolled the deserted beaches of a resort town on Monday, a day after gunmen from Al Qaeda’s North African branch killed 16 people.
The raid was the third high-profile attack by Islamist militants in West Africa since November, but the first on Ivory Coast, the economic powerhouse of the French-speaking region.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) said it was responsible for storming the beach hotels in Grand Bassam, a weekend retreat popular with Ivorians and westerners about 40 km (25 miles) east of the commercial capital Abidjan.
Swimmers and sunbathers were targeted, as well as visitors eating and drinking by the shore at lunchtime. Foreign citizens from Burkina Faso, Cameroon, France, Germany and Mali were among the victims, according to the interior ministry. Two soldiers and six attackers were also killed.
On Monday, there was no sign of the street hawkers and vendors who usually sell necklaces and bathing suits near the beach and resort hotels. Soldiers patrolled up and down the oceanfront, stopping to speak with hotel and restaurant staff who were at work but had no customers to serve.
The attack is a heavy blow for Ivory Coast, a country recovering from more than a decade of political turmoil that culminated in a civil war in 2011. President Alassane Ouattara won a landslide election victory in October, promising to attract foreign investment to boost the economy.
It also provides further evidence that Islamist militants in Africa are expanding beyond their traditional zones of operation in the Sahara and the arid Sahel region in an increasingly ambitious campaign of violence.
It raises fears over where they might strike next and poses serious security questions for former colonial power France, which has thousands of citizens and troops in the region.
‘NEVER THOUGHT IT WOULD HAPPEN’
“I saw all the customers running with their crying children. I asked and they said ‘They’re there on the beach shooting’,” said Souleymane Ouadreogo, who works at the Assoyam Beach hotel and restaurant.
“We never thought it would happen here. Abidjan, maybe. But here? Never.”
The two other recent attacks in the region were also claimed by AQIM, working with other militant groups.
In January, gunmen killed dozens of people in a cafe frequented by foreigners in neighboring Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, and also attacked a hotel. Militants attacked a hotel in the Malian capital Bamako late last year, killing 20.
The attack is another setback for France, a major player in West African security. Some 18,000 French citizens still live in the country.
France, which intervened militarily in Mali in 2013 to try to restore stability after a rebellion in 2012 by ethnic Tuaregs that was later hijacked by jihadists linked to Al Qaeda, has 3,500 troops in the region from Senegal in the far west to Chad.
A French military base in Chad, manned by about 600 soldiers, serves as a logistical hub for the country’s regional operation against Islamist militancy.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve will travel to Ivory Coast on Tuesday to offer logistical support and intelligence, French diplomatic sources said. Counter-terrorism officials have also been sent to help the investigation.