Sékouba "Bambino" Diabate, a Guinean singer who was among the 170 people taken hostage Friday at a hotel in Mali, overheard some of the attackers speaking English, he told Reuters. "I heard them say in English 'Did you load it?,' 'Let's go'," he said, although he could not see the gunmen.

Diabate was among 80 hostages freed by Malian security forces when they stormed the Radisson Blu in Bamako, the capital of the former French colony, after gunmen entered the hotel and took about 170 people hostage, including hotel staff, reportedly killing at least three of them. The hotel has been popular with foreigners. 

Mali has for years been battling rebels affiliated with al Qaeda. In January 2013, France intervened in the conflict with airstrikes to weaken the group. In northern Mali, ethnic Tuareg separatists are active in addition to the al Qaeda-affiliated fighters. It remained unclear Friday who the gunmen were or with which group, if either, they were affiliated.

Although 80 hostages were reportedly freed Friday, 124 guests and 12 employees were still inside at last report. "Our highest concern is the safety of all our guests and employees in the hotel. We are in constant contact with the authorities there and will share further information with you when we have it," the hotel said in a statement.

Diabate is a Guinean singer who was born and raised in the northeastern village of Kintinya, not far from the border with Mali. He joined the group Bembeya Jazz in 1983 and began his solo career in 1991, the Historical Dictionary of Guinea states. His music is known across West Africa, and his reputation has grown globally, according to the website of the music festival Kouraba.org.