BAMAKO : Malian security forces on Saturday stormed a hotel used by United Nations staff and freed four hostages held there by suspected Islamist militants during a nearly 24-hour siege in which 12 people died.

The gunmen had seized the Byblos Hotel in the town of Sevare, around 600 km (400 miles) northeast of the West African nation’s capital Bamako, early on Friday and held off troops who quickly surrounded the building. The attack, far to the south of the Islamist militants’ traditional desert strongholds, was the latest in what appears to be a growing campaign against Malian troops and UN personnel by remnants of an al Qaeda-linked insurgency.

“The siege seems to be over and it has ended well,” said a Malian defence ministry spokesman, Colonel Diaran Koné. “We freed the four hostages. But unfortunately we also found three bodies at the site.” A spokeswoman for Mali’s UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA said four UN contractors had been freed in the pre-dawn raid by security forces.

“At no point were they discovered by the terrorists in the hotel. They were hiding,” Radhia Achouri said, adding that the mission was verifying whether any other MINUSMA personnel were present inside the hotel. Three hostages died during the ordeal, Malian government spokesman Choguel Kokala Maiga said, adding that authorities were still attempting to confirm their nationalities.

Five soldiers and four gunmen, including one who officials earlier said was strapped with explosives, were also killed, he said. Seven suspects have been arrested in connection with the attack, according to a government statement released late on Friday. Ukraine and Russia had previously confirmed that their citizens were among the hostages. Russian news agencies, citing a press attache at Moscow’s embassy in Mali, said a Russian hostage employed by the airline UTair was among those freed on Saturday. At least one French national was also believed to have been staying at the hotel, Malian military officials said on Friday. A French foreign ministry official said Paris was attempting on Saturday to verify whether any of its citizens had been among the hostages.