UN Peacekeeping Mali
UN peacekeepers patrol in Kidal, MaliReuters/Adama Diarra

Security forces have reclaimed control of a hotel in central Mali from gunmen, ending a deadly siege and freeing a number of hostages, according to a defence ministry spokesman.

The attack on the central town of Sevare, around 600 kilometres (400 miles) north east of the Malian capital, Bamako began early yesterday (7 August) when gunmen swept through the area on motorbikes and launched a raid on an air force base before storming Byblos Hotel, which is popular with UN workers.

"The operation ended around 5am [8 August]," said Lieutenant Colonel Diaran Kone. "The operation was led by Mali's gendarmerie with our partners.

"It seems to be over and it has ended well," he said. "We freed the four hostages. But unfortunately we also found three bodies at the site." He did not provide the nationalities of the freed hostages or those who were killed.

According to a previous announcement, five Malian soldiers, two jihadis and a United Nations (UN) contractor were among the dead. The death toll currently stands at 12.

Radhia Achouri, the UN's spokeswoman for MINUSMA (the organisation's mission in Mali), confirmed that the four freed people are UN employees who will be flown to the Bamako.

MINUSMA also confirmed that it had stepped up security at the Mopti airport, near Sevare, in the wake of the invasion.

As yet, no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, although Islamic extremists are thought to be behind the incident.

Mali has been hit by violence since the country's north fell under jihadi control in 2012. Despite a French-led offensive in 2013 to oust separatist Tuareg rebels and al-Qaeda linked fighters from the area, extremists continue to stage attacks.

In March, Islamist gunmen opened fire, accompanied by a grenade attack on a busy restaurant in Bamako which killed five people.

According to eyewitness accounts, the attack on Sevare is a first for the trading hub. Speaking to the BBC, a local resident said: "Since the beginning of the fighting in Mali, we haven't experienced such a situation in Sevare."

"We would expect these things to happen in Gao or Timbuktu, but this the first time it has happened in Sevare."

The violent episode marks an escalation in attacks against Malian troops and UN personnel.