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Story highlights

  • Colleagues pay tribute to German woman killed in the attack
  • Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claims responsibility for the attack
  • Eighteen people were killed, including 15 civilians, Ivory Coast’s President says

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 18 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.

Three soldiers and 15 civilians were among those killed, President Alassane Ouattara said as he visited the sites of the attack.

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

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

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    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.

    Eyewitnesses told CNN they heard sustained gunfire for about 15 minutes and saw people running and screaming from the three hotels.

    “Truly, truly it was terrifying,” said Yapi Marie Claire, who witnessed the attack. “We never thought it could happen here under these circumstances. It’s truly not easy. It’s not easy.”

    Describing a gunman, Kouakou Bertin said, “He shouted, ‘Allahu akbar,’ ” Arabic for God is great. “At that moment three others arrived and started to shoot.”

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

    #Urgent : Attaques sur une plage a #Bassam à 40 km d’#Abidjan. équipements oublié sur place par les terroristes. pic.twitter.com/ymTUIzz5yA

    — Lopez Dobe (@lopezdobe) March 13, 2016

    Colleagues mourn German woman

    Among the victims was German Henrike Grohs, 51, director of the local German cultural association in Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s capital.

    In a statement, Goethe-Institut President Klaus-Dieter Lehmann said it was terrible “that a woman who campaigned for a meaningful life with all her strength had to die so senselessly.”

    Grohs had been in Ivory Coast since 2013. Before then she had worked for the Goethe-Institut in Johannesburg and earlier the Berlin Philharmonic, the statement said.

    Johannes Ebert, the institute’s secretary-general, said in a statement that Grohs’ colleagues were stunned that she had been “snatched so tragically and cruelly from life.”

    “She loved her work and was full of ideas, and full of energy to implement these ideas,” he said.

    Attack condemned

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

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

    The White House also condemned it “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 find out who was responsible.

    The U.S. Embassy in Abidjan reported it had no evidence that U.S. citizens were targeted or harmed.

    The French Embassy said it had set up a crisis unit and asked people to limit travel in the area and stay clear of security forces. The British Foreign Office had similar advice.

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    5 photos: Gunmen attack three Ivory Coast hotels
    Soldiers stand around a young boy who was injured during an attack at one of three hotels on an Ivory Coast beach in Grand Bassam on Sunday, March 13, 2016.
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    5 photos: Gunmen attack three Ivory Coast hotels
    Ivorian security forces evacuate people from the scene of one of the attacks after armed gunmen opened fire.
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    5 photos: Gunmen attack three Ivory Coast hotels
    People carry the bodies of victims following the shooting rampage. At least 16 have died.
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    5 photos: Gunmen attack three Ivory Coast hotels
    Ivory Coast’s armed forces take position outside one of the hotels in the aftermath of the shooting, which was claimed by one of al Qaeda’s affiliates.
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    5 photos: Gunmen attack three Ivory Coast hotels
    Ivory Coast president Alassane Ouattara (l) arrives on the scene. Here, he speaks to the country’s chief of staff, General Soumaila Bakayoko.
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    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.

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    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.

    Opinion: ‘Sham democracy’ is fueling Africa’s terrorism

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

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