Bartender, victim's widow describe massacre at Ivory Coast beach

Story highlights

  • Bartender says he served beer and food to visitors who seemed normal until they started shooting
  • Widow describes how normal Sunday at the beach turned into deadly terror attack that killed her husband
  • Senior Ivorian military source says there were advance warnings of possible attacks on coastal resorts

Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast (CNN)The killers arrived driving a black Ford sedan. They spoke English and a foreign language. They were clean-shaven. They wore dark jeans and nice shoes, and they weren't from the Ivory Coast.

Jean recounts his story at a worn-out table in a Grand-Bassam hotel as paramilitary police armed with AK-47s and rocket launchers listlessly patrol the beach.
    Jean is too afraid to use his real name. He holds his dreadlocked head in his hands as he speaks.
    "I helped them carry two heavy bags into my bar," he says. "They asked about the music and women." It was still morning, hours before the attack, when the killers came to this popular weekend beachside spot.
    In propaganda releases, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb hailed the men who killed at least 19 people in Sunday's attack at the Grand-Bassam beach resort as martyrs and "knights of the desert."
    But Jean says the so-called knights argued about what beer to drink.
    They settled on "66" brand beers and Jean served the local brew and food to the men, who were calm and looked innocent enough. They seemed to be having a good time.
    The weather was perfect, he said, and the bar was doing a good business.
    Then Jean invited one of the strangers who had stayed by the entrance to sit down. As he approached, the man pulled out a small gun and shot a customer in the head.
    "That person's head exploded," says Jean, "and then the seated men overturned their table, yelled 'Allahu Akbar,' started to shoot at everyone."

    Prior warning?

    There aren't many tourists now in the faded hotels in Grand-Bassam. Owners and workers are shocked the attacks happened here, far from the jihadist battlegrounds of the Sahel.
    It caught them totally by surprise.
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    But a senior Ivorian military source says that Moroccan security agencies warned the Ivorian government several weeks ago about a possible attack at coastal resorts in Ivory Coast.
    In recent months, AQIM and its affiliates, including Al-Mourabitoun, have struck popular hotels in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso.
    But despite the alleged warning and the resurgence of AQIM in the region, Ivorian security forces took a long time to reach the scene in Grand-Bassam, according to several eyewitnesses. The survivors pointedly said there was a police station just around the corner.

    A fatal mistake

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    "I blame the government, I blame the police, I blame the hotel," says Celene Gelate. "We were in a nice hotel and they didn't even have security. The police had to come all the way from Abidjan."
    Gelate holds a cellphone and swipes through the final pictures of her and her husband, Mohammed Tawfeeq. She stops at a beachside selfie. They had been married for nine years. She swipes on to a graphic picture of her dead husband. She first saw it on social media.
    "I was in my room having a nap when the shooting started, then bam, bam, bam. I went to the balcony and I see people running and shooting. I start to panic and thought 'Where is my husband, where is my husband?'"
    Mohammed Tawfeeq and Celene Gelate on the morning of the attacks.
    In the security camera footage from the Etoile de Sud hotel bar, hotel staff members first glance around in confusion, then panic sets in as the gunshots hit closer. A woman in a bathing suit runs by, clinging to her child's hand. Cheery music from the sound system accompanies the violent bursts of gunfire.
    Tawfeeq was at the swimming pool when the shooting began. You see him ducking behind the bar for safety. It was a fatal mistake. Just moments later, an attacker walks into frame holding an AK-47. He walks out of the camera's view. Then three shots ring out.
    They are the shots that killed Tawfeeq.
    "He was shot in the mouth, the heart, and in the leg," says Gelate, who had to identify her husband's body, "I am lost now. Every single day we were together."

    Many Muslims killed

    AQIM said the attack was to retaliate against French actions in the region and "Western crusaders." But like Tawfeeq, many of the dead and injured were Muslims.
    Most of them were just Ivorians having a Sunday at the beach.
    Tanoe Assinie's job is to hustle customers into his cabana-style restaurant. Part salesman, part barman, he cajoles potential guests with promises of the best grilled fish and the coldest beer on the beach.
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    "The first person they killed was a local water hawker," says Assinie, as he points to the dried blood on the sandy floor. "They moved through here and shot anyone they could."
    "Everyone was running in panic and trying to get to a safe place. That's when I was shot, but I didn't even realize it until later when someone pointed at the blood on my hands," says Assinie.
    The gunmen then moved on to the beach, he says, and aimed at people in the sea.
    Ivorian officials and witnesses say the official death toll is too low. They say many more bodies floated away in the strong sea currents.