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18 dead after try to free French hostage

Fate of agent held in Somalia unknown

– A raid to free a French intelligence agent held captive in Somalia for three years went horribly wrong, leaving 17 Islamists and at least one French commando dead in a town in militant territory.

In the chaotic aftermath of the firefight, the hostage’s fate was unclear Saturday. 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, but stepped up domestic counter-terror measures to protect public places and transportation networks.

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, 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 the French defense minister said was planned with the utmost of 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 Francois Hollande said in a grim nationwide broadcast. “But this operation confirms the determination of France not to give in to 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.

“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.

The French attack was swift and loud, 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. “We don’t know exactly what happened, but the place was an al-Shabab base and checkpoint.”

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