The attackers stormed three hotels in the sleepy resort of Grand-Bassam, popular with expatriates armed with grenades and assault riffles, around 40 kilometres east of the commercial hub Abidjan.
Witnesses described panic as the gunmen sprayed bullets across the beach, and one told AFP they heard an assailant shouting "Allahu Akbar" -- Arabic for "God is greatest".
"I saw one of the attackers from far away," says Abbas El-Roz, a Lebanese salesman, who was in the pool of a hotel when the attackers struck. "He had a Kalashnikov and a grenade belt. He was looking for people."
Fourteen civilians and two special forces troops were killed in the shooting spree, along with six assailants, according to Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara.
"The toll is heavy," he said as he arrived in Grand-Bassam, describing the killings as a "terrorist" attack.
One French and one German national were among the dead, according to Interior Minister Hamed Bakayoko.
The US-based SITE Intelligence Group said Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the terror group's North African affiliate, had claimed responsibility for the attack.
AQIM said in a statement three of its fighters had been killed.p