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Suspected jihadists kill 18 in attack on Burkina Faso restaurant

[OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso] Suspected Islamist militants killed at least 18 people and wounded several during a raid on a restaurant in Burkina Faso's capital overnight, but security forces shot dead both attackers and freed people trapped inside the building.

"This is a terrorist attack," Communications Minister Remi Dandjinou told a news conference on Monday.

Burkina Faso, like other countries in West Africa, has been targeted sporadically by jihadist groups. Most attacks have been along its remote northern border with Mali, which has seen activity by Islamist militants for more than a decade.

A Reuters witness saw customers running out of the Aziz Istanbul restaurant in central Ouagadougou as police and paramilitary gendarmerie surrounded it, amid gunfire.

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A French citizen was among the dead, French Foreign Affairs minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said. Also killed were seven Burkinabes, a Canadian, two Kuwaitis, a Nigerian, a Senegalese, a Turk and a Lebanese, Burkina Faso Foreign Affairs Minister Alpha Barry said at a news conference.

A further three bodies had yet to be identified, he said.

French President Emmanuel Macron discussed the situation with Burkina Faso President Roch Marc Kabore, his office said, including the role of a new multinational military force aimed at fighting Islamist militants across the vast Sahel region of Africa.

A woman said she was in the restaurant celebrating her brother's birthday when the shooting started. "I just ran but my brother was left inside," the woman told Reuters TV as she fled the building.

For many it was a grim echo of a similar attack on a restaurant and hotel in Ouagadougou in January 2016 in which 30 people were killed. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility.

AQIM and related Islamist groups were largely confined to the Sahara desert until they hijacked a rebellion by ethnic Tuareg separatists in Mali in 2012, and then swept south.

French forces intervened the following year to prevent them taking Mali's capital, Bamako, but they have since gradually expanded their reach across the region, launching high-profile attacks in Bamako, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast.

"I am speechless," Abdoulaye Bance said on a street near the restaurant, where shops and banks were shuttered up and traffic light. "It is not the first time this is happening in our country. There are many victims. There is a feeling of despair."

A new al Qaeda-linked alliance of Malian jihadist groups claimed an attack in June that killed at least five people at a luxury Mali resort popular with Western expatriates just outside Bamako.

In a separate incident on Monday, armed men opened fire on UN peacekeepers and Malian troops in Douentza, central Mali, killing a Malian soldier and wounding two Togolese peacekeepers, army spokesman Diarran Kone said by telephone.

African nations launched a new multinational military force last month to tackle Islamist militants in the Sahel region, a huge band of territory that fringes the Sahara desert and stretches right across North Africa. However, the force will not be operational until later this year and currently faces a budget shortfall.

Mr Macron's office said he and Mr Kabore agreed it was "imperative" to speed up the force's implementation. "They will have further contact with each other in the coming days, as well as with other regional heads of state over the progress of this plan," it said in a statement.

Some observers see the initiative by Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad as forming the basis of an eventual exit strategy for around 4,000 French troops now deployed to the volatile region. But Mr Macron said Paris had no plans to withdraw them.