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Gunmen target Ivory Coast hotels
01:57 - Source: CNN

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NEW: Four French citizens are among the dead, a statement from the Elysee Palace says

Fifteen civilians are among the 18 people killed, Ivory Coast's President says; al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claims responsibility

Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast CNN  — 

The United States and France have pledged assistance to Ivory Coast as the West African nation investigates a terror attack that left at least 16 people dead.

Gunmen stormed three hotels Sunday in the beach resort city of Grand-Bassam, officials said. Foreign nationals, including a Frenchman and a German woman, were among the dead.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility on a social media account tied to the group.

Two soldiers and 14 civilians were among those killed, President Alassane Ouattara said as he visited the sites of the attack.

Three terrorists were killed in the attack, the Ivory Coast presidency said on its Facebook page Monday, citing Interior Minister Hamed Bakayoko.

On Sunday, Ouattara gave the number of terrorists killed in the attack as six. No information was immediately available Monday clarifying the discrepancy.

Popular weekend spot targeted

The attack began shortly after midday Sunday when the beach at Grand-Bassam – about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the country’s largest city, Abidjan – reportedly was packed with people swimming, relaxing and eating at beachside cafes. The area is popular with wealthy Ivorians and Westerners, particularly on Sundays.

Security surveillance footage from one bar shows the confusion as shots rang out, causing people to flee. Moments later, a gunman in a waistcoat calmly walks by, firing his AK-47.

Isaac Ouattara, a hotel manager who was there that day, said he saw three men wearing jeans and white shirts shooting as they walked down the beach.

“I was standing on the balcony. I saw everything. They shot a man, then a woman. They were shouting “Allahu akbar!” he said. “One of the gunmen was injured in the leg, so the other two just shot him dead.”

Photos posted by Twitter user @lopezdobe showed ammunition magazines and grenades on the ground near the scene.

Attack condemned

The United Nations joined the U.S., French, German and other governments in denouncing the attack.

Among the victims was a German woman, Henrike Grohs, 51, who worked as a director of a local German cultural association.

French President Francois Hollande said that at least one French citizen was killed in the “cowardly attack.”

The White House also condemned the attack “in the strongest terms,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said. The United States and France have pledged their support to the Ivorian government to help find out who was responsible.

The French interior and foreign ministers were scheduled to travel to Abidjan on Tuesday, according to the statement.

Al Qaeda offshoot was behind other hotel attacks

Sunday’s violence was the third major attack on hotels in West Africa claimed by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb since November.

In January, gunmen attacked the Hotel Splendid and Cappuccino Cafe in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, while an attack took place in November on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Qaeda’s North African offshoot known as AQIM, has its roots in Algeria. The group has been stepping up attacks after a downturn in activities.

Ryan Cummings, director at Signal Risk, an Africa-focused risk management company, said the recent attacks were evidence of a resurgence.

“They’ve executed attacks on hotels before, but none at the level of sophistication or as spectacular as have been in recent months,” he said.

He said the chosen targets reflected the group’s pronounced “anti-French” focus.

“They’re almost ticking off major hotels within Francophone West Africa, specifically hotels that are quite popular with French citizens,” he said.

Targeting French interests had been a priority for the group since France launched, at Mali’s request, Operation Serval, a U.N.-sanctioned ground and air operation against jihadists in 2013. It was succeeded in August 2014 by Operation Barkhane, a broader French anti-terror mission targeting Islamists in the Sahel, with a 3,000-strong force headquartered in Chad.

While Serval was successful against Islamist militants in Mali, subsequent operations have been less effective, allowing militants across the region to reconsolidate, he said.

The SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks jihadist organizations, said in an analysis of Sunday’s attack that AQIM had “escalated its operations in West Africa, specifically targeting Europeans, as well as other foreigners, in hotels and resorts.”

But targeting Westerners isn’t the only goal, according to SITE.

“AQIM is also competing with ISIS for reassertion and dominance in West Africa, among other regions,” the group said.

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CNN’s David McKenzie, Robyn Kriel, Archith Seshadri, Stephanie Halasz, Alex Felton, Jennifer Deaton and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.