Mogadishu - A French soldier and 17 Islamists were killed in
a failed bid to free an intelligence officer captured in Somalia in 2009 and
whose fate remained unclear, the defence minister said on Saturday.
The overnight operation involving some 50 troops and at
least five helicopters to free the intelligence agent, with the alias of Denis
Allex, was launched by elite forces from the DGSE secret service, Jean-Yves Le
"All indications are [that Allex was] killed by his
captors," Le Drian told reporters, adding that one French soldier was killed
and another missing. He had earlier spoken of two dead troops.
The Shebab, al-Qaeda's local franchise which has held the
Frenchman for more than three years, denied Le Drian's assertion that Allex was
killed by his captors during the raid and even claimed to have captured a
member of the commando team.
"In the end, it will be the French citizens who will
inevitably taste the bitter consequences of their government's devil-may-care
attitude towards hostages," a Shebab statement said.
Le Drian said the raid in Bulomarer, some 110km south of
Mogadishu, was sparked by the "intransigence of the terrorists who have
refused to negotiate for three and a half years and were holding Denis Allex in
It came on the same day that French troops launched air
strikes on Islamist militants in Mali, in west Africa, but the minister said
the operations were not connected.
Allex is among nine French hostages in Africa of whom at
least six are held by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
French President Francois Hollande expressed his great
distress over the deaths and extended his condolences to the families of
A French expert involved in several hostage negotiations
said "talks with the Somali Islamists had become impossible due to the
huge ransom demanded and the marked opposition of the Americans to the payment
"Denis Allex became a human shield and an operation had
become indispensable," the expert said, speaking on condition of
A source close to the case also speaking on condition of
anonymity said the DGSE had been preparing a raid to free Allex for more than a
year, adding they had "been cancelled at the last minute three or four
times as we did not have a solid confirmation of his location".
The Shebab statement said the French carried away
"several" of their dead.
"The helicopters attacked a house... upon the
assumption that Denis Allex was being held at that location, but owing to a
fatal intelligence blunder, the rescue mission turned disastrously wrong.
"The injured French soldier is now in the custody of
the mujahedeen and Allex still remains safe and far from the location of the
battle," it said.
A Bulomarer resident, Idris Youssouf, told AFP: "We
don't know exactly what happened because the attack took place at night, but
this morning we saw several corpses including that of a white man.
"Three civilians were also killed in the
gunfight," he said.
Allex was kidnapped in Somalia on Bastille day in July 2009
along with a colleague. The second hostage, named as Marc Aubriere, was freed
in August in what the French government said was an escape.
The al-Qaeda linked Shebab lost their main strongholds in
the south and centre of the country following an offensive launched in mid-2011
by an African Union force, but they still control some rural areas.
Allex appeared in a video in June 2010 appealing to Paris to
drop its support for the Somali government.
He last appeared in another video in October looking gaunt
and calling on Hollande to work for his release.
Somalia has not had an effective central government since
France has a recent history of botched operations, including
a failed joint raid with Niger forces in 2011 that left both hostages dead,
another in Mali that led to the hostage's execution.
In 2009, French commandos launched a raid to free a French
family whose yacht had been hijacked by Somali pirates. They retook the boat
but accidentally shot the father.