At least six armed men attacked beachgoers outside three hotels Sunday in Grand-Bassam, killing at least 14 civilians and two special forces, sending tourists fleeing through the historic Ivory Coast resort town. Bloody bodies were sprawled on the beach before being taken away by security forces and Ivorian Red Cross workers.
Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara said that 14 civilians, two special forces and the six assailants were killed after the armed men attacked beachgoers and three hotels in Grand-Bassam.
Ouattara traveled to the town later Sunday and said he will visit the different hotels to express condolences and salute security forces for their quick responses.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the attack, according to SITE Intelligence Group which monitors jihadist websites. The Islamic extremist group made the declaration in a post to its Telegram channels, calling three of the attackers "heroes" for the assault on the Grand Bassam beach resort.
The bursts of gunfire sent people running from the beach at Grand-Bassam, a UNESCO World Heritage site and popular destination for Ivorians and foreigners about 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Abidjan, Ivory Coast's commercial center. It was the third major attack on a tourism center in West Africa since November.
Witness Marcel Guy said that he saw at least four gunmen with Kalashnikov rifles run onto the beach. One of the gunmen had a long beard, he said.
The gunmen approached two children on the beach and Guy said he heard the man speak Arabic. One of the children then knelt and started praying.
"The Christian boy was shot and killed right in front of my eyes," he said.
An Associated Press reporter later saw four bodies sprawled out on the beach in front of a small resort next to the popular Etoile du Sud hotel.
Jacques Able, who identified himself as the owner of Etoile du Sud and said he rushed to the hotel after getting a phone call, said one person had been killed at the hotel.
A receptionist there said everyone was safe afterward.
"We don't know where they came from, and we don't know where they've gone," said the receptionist, who would not give his name.
Beachgoers could be seen lining up with their hands above their heads as they filed out of the area. Residents who heard the gunfire hid in their homes, said Josiane Sekongo, 25, who lives across from one of the many beachfront hotels.
An American embassy delegation was in Grand-Bassam on Sunday, but the U.S. Embassy in Abidjan said it is monitoring the situation and has no evidence U.S. citizens were targeted, nor confirmed reports that any were harmed.
Dozens of people were killed in the earlier attacks on West African tourist sites, starting with a siege at a Malian hotel in November and then an assault on a hotel and cafe in Burkina Faso in January. Analysts have warned for months that Ivory Coast, which shares a border with both of those affected countries, could be hit by jihadists as well. The West African attacks indicate that extremist attacks are spreading from North Africa, where a beach attack in June killed 38 people in Tunisia.
"I have always said that Abidjan (Ivory Coast) and Dakar (Senegal) are the next targets for jihadist groups because these two countries represent windows of France in Africa," said Lemine Ould M. Salem, an expert on al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and author of a book "The Bin Laden of the Sahara."
AP writers Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal and Baba Ahmed in Bamako, Mali, contributed to this report.
This story was corrected to show that the attack happened near Abidjan, not near Ivory Coast's capital.