A FRENCH intelligence officer held hostage in Somalia since 2009 was killed along with at least one other soldier during a botched rescue attempt by French troops last night, the French Defence Ministry said today
But the Harakat Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen insurgent group who were holding Denis Allex said in a statement that he was still alive and being held at a location far from the base where French military helicopters attacked overnight.
The al Qaeda-linked insurgents also said they were holding an injured French soldier.
Both sides described a fierce firefight during the raid on the Horn of Africa country that French said was carried out by the DGSE intelligence agency that Allex worked for.
The French Defence Ministry said 17 Somali fighters were killed in the fighting, which came on the same day France carried out air strikes against al Qaeda linked rebels in Mali in west Africa.
"Faced with the intransigence of the terrorists, who refused to negotiate for three and half years and who were holding Denis Allex in inhumane conditions, an operation was planned and carried out," the ministry said.
"During the assault, violent combat took place. Denis Allex was killed by his captors and in trying to liberate their comrade, two soldiers lost their lives."
The government later told a news conference one soldier was killed and one was missing.
Allex was one of two French intelligence officers from the DGSE who were kidnapped by al Shabaab in Mogadishu in July 2009 but one, Marc Aubriere, escaped a month later. Allex had been held ever since.
Authorities in Bula Mareer, a town about 120 km (75 miles) south of Mogadishu, said helicopters attacked on early on Saturday.
"Helicopters attacked al Shabaab at 2.00 a.m. this morning. Two civilians died in the crossfire," Ahmed Omar Mohamed, deputy chairman for lower Shabelle region, told Reuters.
An al Shabaab official who asked not to be named said they exchanged fire with French commandos.
"Three helicopters dropped French commandos. We exchanged fire," the official told Reuters.
The ministry said on Saturday Allex was kidnapped when he was carrying out an official aid mission with the Somalian government. France has previously said the two men were in the Somali capital to train local forces.
After his abduction al Shabaab issued a series of demands, which included an end to French support for the Somali government and the withdrawal of African Union peacekeepers, whose 17,600-strong troops are helping battle the rebels.
A video of Allex pleading with French President Francois Hollande to negotiate his release and save his life appeared on a website in October used by Islamist militant groups around the world. Reuters could not verify its authenticity.
Hollande said at the time the government was seeking to start talks with any party able to facilitate Allex's release.