Johannesburg - A South African man from Pretoria died in a hail of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades launched at the Byblos hotel in north-eastern Mali by Islamist militants this weekend.
The South African embassy in Mali on Saturday confirmed the death of the father of four, and said two other South Africans survived the attack. They were all working on contract for the UN in Sevare, 620km north-east of the capital, Bamako.
They were staying at the Byblos hotel, usually frequented by UN staff, when the militants attacked on Friday.
Five Malian soldiers, three gunmen, and at least three other civilians also died in the attack.
Basketball South Africa meanwhile said in a statement on Saturday that the national under-16 basketball team was safe in Mali. The team is participating in a tournament taking place about 300km from where the attack occurred.
The Department of International Relations and Co-operation did not disclose the name of the dead South African, but media reports identified him as Jaco Janse van Rensburg, 38, and this was confirmed by Imtiaz Sooliman, the founder of Gift of the Givers.
Department spokesman Nelson Kgwete said that a “38-year-old from Pretoria lost his life”.
“The SA embassy in Mali has confirmed that three citizens were affected by the attack. Two are safe,” said Kgwete.
“The deceased SA national was attached to an aviation company rendering services to the UN contingent in Mali,” Kgwete said.
Sooliman said one of the South Africans who’d survived the attack was a volunteer with Gift of the Givers. This volunteer, who comes from Polokwane and whom he could not name, escaped death by sheltering in his hotel room’s bath tub to escape the explosions. He was now safe at a UN compound.
“When we received word from our team member that he had survived the shootout, we offered up a prayer of thanks,” said Sooliman who is also involved in negotiations in Mali to release South African hostage Stephen McGown, who has been held captive by militants since November 25, 2011.
Janse van Rensburg’s brother-in-law Cobus Smal, who is based in Zambia, told local media he was on his way back to South Africa to assist the family with funeral plans.
“We had contact all day yesterday (Friday) with Jaco and he told us they were being attacked. We could communicate with him during the day on WhatsApp, but about 20.10 (8.10pm) his cellphone shut down and then we didn’t hear from him again,” said Smal.
“The Department of International Relations told us today (Saturday) at noon that he is dead… We know very little about what happened. It is very bad.”
Smal said Janse van Rensburg had been in Mali since December, working with the UN, alongside other South Africans.
He said Janse van Rensburg’s wife and four children were in Booysens, Pretoria.
Kgwete said the South African government “sends its deepest condolences to the family”.
Kgwete added: “The SA government joins the UN in strongly condemning the attack in Mali.”
Meanwhile Basketball South Africa said: “Our team is safe and in no danger. There is good security at their hotel and no boy is allowed to leave the hotel.
“The team is due to leave Mali on Sunday (today) at 10.30am and arrive in SA at 4am on Monday. Our children are safe. All are accounted for and under the watchful eye of our team management.”
Malian authorities are meanwhile interrogating seven suspects following the attack.
It started on Friday at 7am and lasted almost 24 hours. This hotel had not been the first target of the gunmen who entered Sevare on motorbikes five hours earlier, and first attacked a nearby air base.
“They announced on loud hailers that everyone was to go inside,” the owner of the Byblos hotel said.
The militants then attacked the hotel, taking a number of foreign hostages, including a Russian and a Ukrainian.
The rescue operation by Malian security forces was supported by the French military.
Sevare is a key location on the road to the desert north, and a trading hub that serves the historic riverside city of Mopti.
This is the first time the town has been hit by such an attack, as militants have previously targeted places such as Gao or Timbuktu.
The attack surprised residents who have experienced relative security given the presence of soldiers, police, and UN peacekeepers at the nearby military base in Mopti, that used to be the international airport.
Islamist militants have stepped up their campaign against Malian security forces and UN peacekeepers, and according to a local army commander, the attackers are believed to be affiliated with the Macina Liberation Movement.
The movement has recently burnt government buildings, downed a communications tower, and threatened locals that if they co-operate with French forces, the government, or UN peacekeepers, they will be killed.
According to Human Rights Watch, the armed group has been operating in central Mali.
It has committed serious abuses in the course of its military operations against security forces.
This is the third assault in Mali in just over a week, with 11 Malian soldiers having been killed last Monday in an attack on a military camp in Timbuktu.
Two more were killed in a clash near the border with Mauritania.
The UN mission in Mali (Minusma) which numbers approximately 10 000, has taken responsibility for securing the north of the country.
France, the former colonial power, which beat back a powerful offensive by Islamists in 2013, has more than 1 000 soldiers in the area.
* October 2011 – Ethnic Tuaregs launched rebellion after returning with arms from Libya
* March 2012 – The army launches a coup over the government’s handling of the rebellion
* April 2012 – Tuareg and al Qaeda-linked fighters seize control of the north
* June 2012 – Islamist groups capture Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao from the Tuaregs, and destroy Muslim shrines and manuscripts, and impose Sharia law
* Jan 2013 – Mali requests French help
* July 2013 – The UN force, now totalling 9 750, takes responsibility for securing the north after the Islamists are routed
* July 2014 – France launches operation in the Sahel to stem the emergence of jihadist groups
* Jan-Aug 2015 – Sporadic attacks continue in desert area of Northern Mali, blamed on Tuareg and Islamist groups
Additional reporting by Weekend Argus reporters