Bamako - Gunmen went on the rampage at a luxury hotel in Mali's capital Friday, seizing 170 guests and staff in a suspected Islamist hostage-taking that has left at least three people dead.
Special forces are storming Bamako's Radisson Blu and dozens of hostages have been freed, according to local television and security sources.
Witnesses described "around a dozen" armed assailants, while security sources spoke of two or three "jihadist" attackers.
The men are believed to have entered the 190-room hotel around 0700 GMT in a car with diplomatic plates. Many guests were in their rooms when the attack began.
Automatic gunfire was heard at the hotel in the city centre, with a security ministry spokesman saying at least three hostages had been killed. Their identities were not yet known.
Two freed female hostages told AFP they saw the body of a light-skinned man lying on the hotel floor.
Guests from around the world have been caught up in the hostage-taking, which comes a week after the Paris terror attacks in which 129 people from 19 different countries were killed.
India said 20 of its nationals were among the hostages while Xinhua, the state news agency in Beijing, said at least seven Chinese were involved.
Twelve Air France employees staying at the hotel were in a "safe place", the company announced, while Turkish Airlines said six of its staff were caught up in the attack.
"Radisson hotel attack: special forces have launched an operation, first hostages released, about 80," the state-run ORTM channel said on a scrolling banner, without specifying the source of the information.
"Our special forces have freed hostages and 30 others were able to escape on their own," Security Minister Salif Traore told AFP.
ORTM began broadcasting images of the hotel showing police and other security personnel in a hallway and a courtyard, and several Westerners looking bewildered.
"It's all happening on the seventh floor, jihadists are firing in the corridor," a security source told AFP earlier.
Malian soldiers, police and special forces were on the scene as a security perimeter was set up, along with members of the UN's MINUSMA peacekeeping force in Mali and the French troops fighting jihadists in west Africa under Operation Barkhane.
Paris was sending around 40 officers from an elite French unit of paramilitary police specialised in hostage situations.
France has more than 1000 troops in its former colony, a key battleground of Operaton Barkhane, a counter-terror operation spanning five countries in Africa's restive Sahel region.
Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who was in Chad for a summit of regional leaders, cut short his trip to fly home upon hearing news of the attack.
A paramedic said three security guards had been wounded, one of them critically. AFP's correspondent saw a police officer, who had been shot, being evacuated by security forces.
The Rezidor Hotel Group, the US-based parent company of Radisson Blu, said a total of 170 people were caught up in the attack -- 140 guests and 30 employees.
A French consultant who stays regularly at the hotel described it as "an obvious target for terrorists".
"Security is provided by private guards. They passed a metal detector under cars," said the consultant, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"I noticed that when they knew you, they didn't (use the metal detector) any more."
The Radisson attack follows a hotel siege in August in the town of Sevare, central Mali, in which five UN workers were killed along with four soldiers and four attackers.
Five people, including a French citizen and a Belgian, were killed in an attack at a restaurant in Bamako in March, the first such incident in the capital targeting Westerners.
Islamist groups have continued to wage attacks in Mali despite a June peace deal between former Tuareg rebels in the country's north and rival pro-government armed groups.
The country's north fell under the control of Tuareg rebels and jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda in mid-2012.
The Islamists were largely ousted by a French-led military operation launched in January 2013, but they have since launched sporadic attacks on security forces from desert hideouts.
Despite the peace deal, large swathes of Mali remain beyond the control of government and foreign forces.
In a recording authenticated by Malian authorities this week, a jihadist leader in Mali denounced the peace deal and called for further attacks against France.