Heavily-armed gunmen went on a shooting rampage in the Ivory Coast resort of Grand-Bassam on Sunday, killing at 16 people and leaving bodies strewn on the beach in the the first attack of its kind in the country.
One witness told AFP they heard one of the assailants shouting "Allahu Akbar" — Arabic for "God is greatest", but there has not yet been any claim of responsibility.
President Alassane Ouattara said 14 civilians and two special forces troops were killed in the strike that targeted three hotels in the former French colonial capital, a resort town popular with Western expatriates.
"The toll is heavy," he said as he visited the scene, adding that six gunmen had been killed.
French President Francois Hollande said at least one French national was among the victims.
The assailants, who were "heavily armed and wearing balaclavas, fired at guests at the L\’Etoile du Sud, a large hotel which was full of expats in the current heatwave," another witness told AFP.
It was not immediately clear who was behind the shooting in the resort, which lies on the Gulf of Guinea around 40 kilometres (25 miles) east of the commercial hub Abidjan.
"I haven\’t heard anything from my son and my sister," said Marie-Claire Yapi, in tears as she held her two-year-old son in her arms.
"We had just arrived when we heard gunshots — we thought it was a robbery. Someone said to me, \’Run, this is serious, they are killing everyone."
West African nations have scrambled to boost security in the wake of jihadist attacks in recent months in the capitals of Mali and Burkina Faso.
Sunday\’s attack also bore grim similarities to the Islamist gun and grenade assault on a Tunisian beach resort last June, which left 37 foreign holidaymakers dead.
Witness Braman Kinda said several attackers had "roamed the beach firing shots", while Abbas El-Roz, a Lebanese national who was staying at the Etoile du Sud, said one of the assailants had a Kalashnikov assault rifle and a grenade belt.
Another witness, Kouamena Kakou Bertin, said three others fled on foot via a nearby road.
"Search operations are continuing, the hotel has been secured," a police source told AFP.
A large crowd gathered at the entrance to the French quarter at the edge of the old town, whose elegant colonial-era facades have earned Grand-Bassam UNESCO World Heritage status.
An AFP journalist saw around a dozen people, including an injured Western woman, being evacuated in a military truck.
Military vehicles carrying heavy machine guns also headed to the scene, along with armed traditional hunters known as Dozo.
The army was tightly controlling access to the area, while the French embassy told its nationals to stay away from the attack scene "to avoid obstructing security forces".
Analysts have voiced fears that Islamist attacks could spread further into West Africa to countries such as Ivory Coast and Senegal, and the recently-concluded Flintlock exercise, which groups African, US and European troops, focused on the need to counter jihadism.
In Burkina Faso and Mali, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for deadly attacks on hotels popular with foreigners in November 2015 and in January this year.
The Mali attack in November left 20 people dead, while gunmen killed 30 people in the assault on a hotel in Burkina Faso\’s capital Ouagadougou in January.
Ivory Coast is the world\’s top cocoa producer. Its former president Laurent Gbagbo is currently on trial at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity over deadly violence that followed the disputed 2010 election that brought Ouattara to power.
More than 3,000 people were killed in five months of unrest after the presidential polls, when Gbagbo refused to concede defeat.
Ouattara was re-elected for a second presidential term late last year, hoping to turn the page on the violence and revive Ivory Coast\’s conflict-scarred economy.