MOGADISHU – French troops underestimated the strength of Islamist rebels when they launched a failed bid to free an intelligence officer held hostage in Somalia, the French defense minister said.
One French soldier died and another went missing during the raid in which the hostage was probably killed by his captors, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Saturday. Seventeen militants were killed, he added.
The overnight operation involving 50 troops and five helicopters to free the intelligence agent — known by his code name, Denis Allex — was launched by elite forces from the DGSE secret service, he said.
“The resistance was stronger than expected and the heavy weaponry at the hands of the terrorists was clearly underestimated,” Le Drian said.
He said one commando was dead and another missing, and that “all indications” pointed to Allex having been killed by his al-Shabab captors, a Somali Islamist group affiliated with al-Qaida.
But the group denied Allex was dead and said they were also holding the missing French commando. They also threatened reprisals against France.
Le Drian said the raid in Bulomarer, some 110 km south of Mogadishu, was sparked by the “intransigence of the terrorists who have refused to negotiate for 3½ years and were holding Denis Allex in inhuman conditions.”
Allex is among nine French hostages in Africa, of whom at least six are held by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
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 of ransom. “Denis Allex became a human shield and an operation had become indispensable,” the expert said.
Idris Youssouf, a resident of Bulomarer, wasn’t able to provide many details of the attack.
“We don’t know exactly what happened because the attack took place at night,” he said. “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 July 14, 2009 — Bastille Day — along with a colleague. A second hostage — known by his code name, Marc Aubriere — was free a month later, in what the French government said was an escape.