GRAND-BASSAM, Cote d’Ivoire — Before the shooting started, an armed man stood quietly at the entrance to a beachfront restaurant, holding a Kalashnikov rifle and coolly surveying the crowd. Francois Tanon, who rents beach chairs to tourists at Ivory Coast’s Grand-Bassam resort town, thought the man was a security guard.
A few minutes later, Tanon was talking to a customer when a bullet hit the client in the neck.
“The patron I was speaking to fell down right in front of me,” Tanon said. “The man that I saw before at the entrance, now I saw him down near the water, his gun in his hand, he was firing everywhere.”
In the end 18 were killed Sunday, leaving Grand-Bassam and all of Ivory Coast reeling from its first Islamic extremist attack. President Alassane Ouattara’s government began work Monday to tighten security and prevent similar violence.
Ouattara presided over an emergency meeting with Cabinet ministers and his National Security Council on Monday. Following the meeting, the government revised the death toll to 15 civilians and three special forces, up from 14 and two respectively. Just three attackers were killed, instead of the six that was earlier announced on Sunday, Interior Minister Hamed Bakayoko said Monday.
The lower death toll for the assailants agrees with the claim of responsibility from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM, which said Sunday that three attackers were killed. The extremist group claimed responsibility for the attack, according to SITE Intelligence Group which monitors jihadi websites.
Many witnesses said they at first suspected the gunshots were fireworks being set off by holidaymakers. Only when victims began crumpling to the ground did they realize the beach was being targeted in an assault.
The gunmen entered the beach from multiple directions, witnesses said.
Frenchman Charles-Philippe d’Orleans said he was at the beach with a friend when he heard the first shot and he thought it was a firecracker then he heard another, louder one. A security guard told beachgoers not to worry, that some youths had tried to enter the paid-access beach and that another guard had fired his weapon into the air, d’Orleans told French radio RTL.
But then more shooting broke out and d’Orleans and others hid behind a wall. Gunmen were “to the right, to the left, toward the road and toward the beach,” d’Orleans said. He said that when the gunfire receded he and his friend sped away in a car.
“Afterward we said ‘Wow, we actually escaped something big,”‘ he said.
The attack on Grand-Bassam was the first of its kind in Ivory Coast. Officials had been bracing for one in the wake of similar assaults by AQIM in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali.
Those who make a living off tourism believed the attack on three hotels would deal the sector a huge blow.
“They’ve really ruined it for us. With all that has happened, I don’t think that the clients are going to come back now,” Tanon said.
Security forces on Monday patrolled Grand-Bassam’s beaches, which were otherwise largely deserted. Soldiers checked the trunks of cars approaching the beach. Authorities briefly closed a section of beach in front of La Nouvelle Paillote hotel after receiving reports that explosives had been found there.
Ivorian newspapers on Monday morning featured graphic photos of dead bodies sprawled on the beach. The headline for one paper, Le Patriote, proclaimed: “We are Grand-Bassam!”
The 15 civilian victims came from countries including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, France, Germany and Mali, said Bakayoko. The German woman killed was Henrike Grohs, who had been the director of the Goethe Institute in Ivory Coast since 2013, according to the German press agency, dpa.
The toll of French victims has risen to four, according to a statement issued Monday by the office of President Francois Hollande. The French foreign affairs and interior ministers will go to Ivory Coast on Tuesday in solidarity, said the statement. The Paris prosecutor’s office said it has opened an investigation into the attack, calling it murder in connection with a terrorist enterprise. Anti-terrorism investigators will handle the probe because there were French victims.
The United Nations Security Council on Tuesday condemned the attack.
The attack was the third major strike on a tourism centre in West Africa since November. Dozens of people were killed in a siege at a Malian hotel in November and an assault on a hotel and cafe in Burkina Faso in January. Analysts had warned for months that Ivory Coast could also be hit by jihadis.
Bakayoko said authorities had taken steps to prepare the country for an attack, crediting their work with reducing Sunday’s loss of life. He said security forces responded within 30 minutes and that within two hours the assailants had been killed.
Sites in Grand-Bassam were among more than 100 that had been under heightened surveillance in recent months, Bakayoko said, adding that those measures were going to continue. Authorities have mobile phones and other evidence that will allow them “to go to the source” of the attack, Bakayoko said.
“Count on us,” he said. “We are going to reinforce the surveillance.”