Updated Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 09:32 AM
MOGADISHU, Somalia – A raid to free a French intelligence agent held captive in Somalia for three years went horribly wrong Saturday, leaving 17 Islamists and at least one French commando dead in a farming town deep in militant territory.
In the chaotic aftermath of the firefight, the hostage’s fate was unclear. The Islamists denied French claims that he was killed and said they had a new prisoner: a wounded French soldier.
The botched rescue in East Africa came the same day French airstrikes in the West African nation of Mali targeted resurgent rebel Islamists. French officials said the two operations were unrelated.
Confusion surrounded early reports of the failed rescue of the French agent, known by his code-name Denis Allex. He was captured in Somalia on July 14, 2009 — Bastille Day — and last seen in a video released in October pleading for the French president to help him.
It was clear that a raid the French defense minister said was planned with the utmost care had encountered serious problems from the moment the helicopters swooped in.
“This operation could not be achieved despite the sacrifice of two of our soldiers and doubtless the murder of our hostage,” French President François Hollande said in a grim nationwide broadcast. “But this operation confirms the determination of France not to give into blackmail by terrorists.”
French Defense 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 Defense Ministry earlier said two commandos were killed in the fighting in the Somali town of Bulomarer, a small farming community under Islamist control for four years.
“It was an extremely dangerous mission,” Le Drian said. “Everything indicates Denis Allex was killed.”
The militant Islamist group al-Shabab, which held Allex for more than three years, said Saturday that he remained alive and in its custody, as was a new captive — a French commando wounded in fighting. There are also seven French hostages in Mali.
Residents of Bulomarer described hearing 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,” he said on condition of anonymity.
An elder in the town, Hussein Yasin, said the French troops shot dead two residents who turned on flashlights after hearing movement. As the soldiers walked away, they encountered an al-Shabab checkpoint and the gunfire began.
As the Islamists retreated, the helicopters returned to retrieve the commandos, he said.
The chief of staff of the French army, Edouard Guillaud, said France had exhausted any other way to free Allex.“When you get to the point of launching an assault, it means the other options had failed,” Guillaud said.
Allex was kidnapped from a hotel in Mogadishu with a colleague who later escaped. They were in Somalia to train government forces, which are fighting Islamist militiamen.
French security agent Denis Allex was seen in a video posted on militant Islamic websites. He was captured in Somalia on July 14, 2009 — Bastille Day.