BAMAKO, Mali (CBSNewYork/AP) — A U.S. citizen killed in a terrorist attack in a Mali hotel grew up in northern New Jersey and attended Columbia University, according to the U.S. State Department.

Anita Ashok Datar, 41, was one of at least 20 people killed in the attack by Islamic extremists at a Radisson Hotel in Bamako, the capital of the West African Country, the State Department said.

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Datar most recently lived in Takoma Park, Maryland. Her family said in a statement released by the State Department that she was born in western Massachusetts and grew up in northern New Jersey.

A classmate, Tara Elms Henderson, told CNN Datar was a 1991 graduate of Mount Olive High School in Flanders, New Jersey. She attended Rutgers University as a college undergraduate, CNN reported.

Datar received her masters’ of Public Health and Public Affairs from the Joseph Mailman School of Public Health and the School of International Public Affairs at Columbia, her family said.

She worked in the Peace Corps in Senegal for two years, and spent much of her career working to advance global health and international development – focusing on population, reproductive health, family planning, and HIV, the State Department said.

She was a senior manager at the Palladium Group and a founding member of Tulalens – a nonprofit group linking underserved communities with quality health care, the statement said.

Datar was survived by her son, her parents, her brother, and friends worldwide.

Malian soldiers and special forces stand guard at the entrance the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako on November 20, 2015, after the assault of security forces. Gunmen went on a shooting rampage at the luxury hotel in Mali's capital Bamako, seizing 170 guests and staff in an ongoing hostage-taking that has left at least three people dead. (Credit: HABIBOU KOUYATE/AFP/Getty Images)

Malian soldiers and special forces stand guard at the entrance the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako on November 20, 2015, after the assault of security forces. Gunmen went on a shooting rampage at the luxury hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako, seizing 170 guests and staff in an ongoing hostage-taking that has left at least three people dead. (Credit: HABIBOU KOUYATE/AFP/Getty Images)

The heavily armed extremists seized dozens of hostages Friday at the hotel, but Malian troops, backed by U.S. and French special forces, swarmed in to retake the building and free many of the terrified captives.

At least 20 people were killed along with two gunmen during the more than seven-hour siege, a Malian military commander said.

An extremist group led by former al Qaeda commander Moktar Belmoktar claimed responsibility for the attack in the former French colony, and many in France saw it as a new assault on their country’s interests a week after the Paris attacks.

While French President François Hollande did not link the violence at the Radisson Blu hotel with last week’s bloodshed in Paris, he declared that France would stand by the West African country.

“Once again, terrorists want to make their barbaric presence felt everywhere, where they can kill, where they can massacre. So we should once again show our solidarity with our ally, Mali,” he said.

Gunfire continued throughout the day at the hotel, which is popular with airline crews and other foreigners doing business in Bamako, but the shooting had stopped after dark.

Officials would not confirm that the entire complex had been secured by nightfall, although the only activity was firefighters carrying bodies to waiting ambulances.

Army Cmdr. Modibo Nama Traore said late Friday night that 20 people had been killed, including an official with Mali’s gendarmerie. In addition, he said five people were injured including two police officers.

Though Traore had earlier said as many as 10 attackers were involved, he said Friday night that there may have been only two gunmen, both of whom were killed. A police officer at the hotel displayed photos of the two dead gunmen, their bodies riddled with bullets.

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The siege began when assailants shouting “God is great!” in Arabic burst into the complex and opened fire on the hotel guards, Traore said earlier on Friday. An employee who identified himself as Tamba Diarra said by phone amid the attack that the militants used grenades.

About 170 guests and employees were initially taken hostage, but some apparently escaped or hid in the sprawling, cream-and-pink hotel that has 190 rooms and a spa, outdoor pool and ballroom. They included visitors from France, Belgium, Germany, China, India, Canada, Ivory Coast and Turkey.

“It was more like a real terrorist attack,” said U.N. Mission spokesman Olivier Salgado. “The intention was clearly to kill, not to necessarily have people being hostage.”

Traore said 126 people had been escorted to safety, and that at least one guest reported the attackers instructed him to recite verses from the Quran as proof of his Muslim faith before he was allowed to leave.

As people ran for their lives along a dirt road, troops in full combat gear pointed the way to safety, sometimes escorting them with a protective arm around the shoulder. Local TV showed heavily armed troops in what appeared to be a lobby.

Monique Kouame Affoue Ekonde of Ivory Coast said she and six other people, including a Turkish woman, were escorted out by security forces as the gunmen rushed toward the fifth or sixth floor. Ekonde said she had been “in a state of shock.”

Malian special forces went “floor by floor” to free hostages, Traore said.

U.S. special forces assisted, said Col. Mark Cheadle of the U.S. Army’s Africa Command. At least six Americans were evacuated from the hotel, Cheadle said. U.S. officials were trying to verify the location of all American citizens in Mali.

National Security Council spokesman Ned Price praised the bravery of the Malian, French, U.N. and U.S. security personnel who responded, adding that Washington was prepared to assist Mali’s government as it investigates “this tragic terrorist attack.”

A unit of French soldiers was sent to Bamako in support of Malian security forces, the French Defense Ministry said. About 40 special police forces also played a supporting role, France’s national gendarme service said.

The U.N. mission sent security reinforcements and medical aid to the scene, said U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq. A few U.N. staff were in the hotel but they got out safely, he added.

Reflecting the chaos surrounding the siege, various death tolls were reported during the day. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said 19 people died — 18 in the hotel and one Malian soldier killed in the fighting.

A U.N. official had earlier said initial reports put the number of dead at 27, but that different casualty figures have been reported and the organization is working with authorities to get an exact total. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the operation was still ongoing.

Throughout the siege, officials in various countries from Europe to Asia sought to find out whether their citizens staying at the hotel were safe.

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, citing its diplomats in Mali, reported about 10 Chinese citizens took shelter in their rooms, and all were safe.

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Also reported safe were 12 members of an Air France flight crew and five from Turkish Airlines. All 20 guests from India were evacuated as well, said Vikas Swarup, spokesman for India’s Foreign Ministry.