PARIS (AP) — A French commando raid to free an intelligence agent held captive for three years ended in the deaths of the hostage and a French soldier, the French military said Saturday. But the man's Islamist kidnappers said the hostage was alive and that a French soldier had been captured as well.
Confusion surrounded early reports of the botched rescue of the agent, known by his code-name Denis Allex. The intelligence agent was captured on July 14, 2009 and last seen in a video released in October pleading for the French president to help him.
But it was clear that a dangerous raid that the French defense minister said was planned with the utmost of care had gone horribly wrong. The militant Islamist group al-Shabab, which had held Allex for more than three years, said Saturday that he remained alive and in their custody, along with a new captive — a French commando wounded in the failed rescue.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said one French soldier was missing and one was dead, along with 17 Islamists killed in the fighting. The Defense Ministry earlier said two commandos were killed.
"It was an extremely dangerous mission," Le Drian said.
A Somali intelligence official had earlier said the raid caused casualties but that he had no information on the hostage.
Le Drian said the operation in Somalia was unrelated to the French offensive overnight in Mali to drive back Islamist militants.
Residents of the Somali town of Bulomarer described the chaotic sounds of explosions and gunfire from what they called an al-Shabab base. An al-Shabab official said that 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 on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The al-Shabab official said some soldiers were killed, but the group held only one dead French soldier. Later, al-Shabab released a statement saying that Allex "remains safe and far from the location of the battle." The statement said there would be a verdict in his case in two days.
The French attack was swift and loud, local residents said.
"We heard a series of explosions followed by gunfire just seconds after a helicopter flew over the town," Mohamed Ali, a resident of Bulomarer, told The Associated Press by telephone. "We don't know exactly what happened, but the place was an al-Shabab base and checkpoint."
Allex was kidnapped from a hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia, on July 14, 2009 with a colleague who later escaped. They were in Somalia to train government forces, which are fighting Islamist militiamen.
In October, French President Francois Hollande pledged to "use all means" to contact "anyone who can help free our hostages."
Keaten reported from Paris.