A FRENCH commando raid in Somalia to free a captive intelligence agent ended in the deaths of 17 Islamists and a French soldier.
France said the hostage also died in the failed rescue, but the man’s captors denied he had been killed and claimed yesterday to have seized a second soldier.
Confusion surrounded early reports of the botched rescue of the French agent, known by his codename, Denis Allex. He was captured on 14 July, 2009, and was last seen in a video released in October, pleading for the French president’s help.
But it was clear yesterday that a dangerous raid the French defence minister said was planned with the utmost of care had gone horribly wrong.
Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Allex was killed by his captors and that one French soldier was missing and one dead, along with 17 Islamists. The defence ministry earlier said two commandos were killed in the fighting in the Somali town of Bulomarer. “It was an extremely dangerous mission,” Le Drian said. “Everything indicates Denis Allex was killed.”
The militant Islamist group al-Shabaab, which held Allex for more than three years, said yesterday that he remained alive and in its custody, as was a new captive – a French commando wounded in the fighting.
Le Drian said the operation in Somalia was unrelated to the French offensive overnight in Mali where there are seven French hostages being held by al-Qaeda-linked Islamists belonging to the Ansar Dine group.
Residents of Bulomarer described hearing explosions and gunfire from what they called an al-Shabaab base. An al-Shabaab official said fighting began after helicopters dropped off French soldiers.
“Five helicopters attacked a house in the town. They dropped soldiers off on the ground so that they could reach their destination but fighting has broken out,” he said. The French attack was swift and loud, residents said.
“We heard a series of explosions followed by gunfire seconds after a helicopter flew over,” said Mohamed Ali, a resident. “We don’t know exactly what happened, but the place was an al-Shabaab base and checkpoint.”
The al-Shabaab official said some soldiers were killed, but the group held only one dead French soldier. Later, it released a statement saying that Allex “remains safe and far from the location of the battle”. It said there would be a verdict in his case in two days.
Allex was kidnapped from a Mogadishu hotel on 14 July, 2009, with a colleague who later escaped. They were in Somalia to train government forces fighting al-Shabaab.
In October, French president François Hollande pledged to “use all means” to contact “anyone who can help free our hostages”.
In 2009, a Frenchman held by pirates off the Somali coast was killed during a commando raid that saw his family rescued. And in 2011, two French hostages kidnapped in Niger were killed by their captors as French troops closed in.