A witness who escaped from the Mali hotel where 170 guests and staff were taken hostage Friday said he could hear the gunmen talking on the other side of his room door.
Guinean singer Sekouba 'Bambino' Diabate told NBC News that he had just finished his prayers when he heard gunshots ring around the Radisson Hotel in Bamako.
"Initially I thought they were linked with petty criminals," the 51-year-old jazz musician said, but a third shot "from a very heavy weapon" made him realize that this was no ordinary crime.
"It felt like this wasn't just simple pistols," he said. "There were shots from military weapons."
Diabate said that he overheard the attackers outside his room talking "in English with a Nigerian accent" about their weapons being loaded, he said. Although his first language is French, he said he understands enough English to know what they were saying.
"I heard them say in English: 'Did you load it?', 'Let's go," he said.
After getting no response from the hotel's reception by telephone, he hid under his bed listening to volley after volley of gunfire.
At one point he overheard the attackers return the room next to his to reload their weapons, he said.
"I could hear them talking about getting more ammunition," he said, adding that he tried to remain as still as possible so as not to alert them to his presence.
At around 8 a.m. local time (3 a.m. ET) he said there was a knock at the door, but fearing it was the attackers, he stayed silent.
"I refused to open it, but they said they were Malian Police," he said, adding that he was still nervous when he opened the door.
"There was smoke everywhere," he said, but officers directed him to an exit and put him in vehicle with five other people before driving them to a safe location.
Niek DeGoeij, the country director for Catholic Relief Services in Mali, was on his way to work when he was contacted by security people warning him not to go into the office, which is next to the hotel.
"However, 25 staff members were in already and had to hunker down as everything went on," he told NBC News.
Security services "managed to get them all out and everybody is safe," he said.
Mali has been battling Islamic terrorism for years. Islamist fighters with ties of al Qaeda occupied the northern part of the country for most of 2012 before they were driven out by a French-led military operation.
DeGoeij said the situation had improved on the ground until today's attack.
"We've seen a reduction in insecurity — so that has been real progress," he said. "It is palpable how unsettled people are — we don't know if it's over, we don't know how bad it is, don't know who's doing it."
"It hits close to home — if it is far up in the north it doesn't seem so real."