French commandos rescued four foreign hostages including two French citizens from a militant group in Burkina Faso, France’s military said, adding two elite soldiers were killed in the night-time operation.
French Special Forces carried out the raid under over the night of Thursday-Friday, supported by US intelligence and troops from France’s Barkhane operation in the Sahel to counter Islamist militants.
All four hostages were safe, President Emmanuel Macron’s office said, adding a US and a South Korean woman were also freed in the covert operation.
“The precise and determined actions of French soldiers allowed us to take out kidnappers while protecting the lives of the hostages,” France’s army chief Francois Lecointre told a news conference, describing the militant group as “terrorists”.
Four kidnappers were killed and two escaped, he said.
“Those who attack France and the French know we will spare no effort to track them and take them out. We will never abandon our citizens,” Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly told reporters.
The French forces were not aware of the presence of the US and South Korean hostages ahead of the operation. They had been held for 28 days, Lecointre said.
“We were not aware of their presence … the American will be repatriated separately,” Parly said.
“Contacts show these countries were not necessarily aware of their presence.”
A spokeswoman for the US State Department said the United States was grateful for the successful rescue of the hostages and offered condolences to the families of the soldiers killed.
“The successful operation demonstrates the importance of our historic alliance with France. We reaffirm our solidarity with the people of Burkina Faso and Benin in the face of these threats,” she said.
South Korea confirmed the identity of the South Korean hostage, a woman in her 40s, its foreign ministry said.
France, the former colonial power in the region, intervened in Mali in 2013 against Islamist militants then occupying Mali’s north and keeps about 4,500 troops in the Sahel.
The region has seen a spike in violence by militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State in past years, highlighting the difficulty international partners face in restoring stability.
France’s defence ministry identified the fallen soldiers as elite naval commandos.
Burkina Faso’s President Roch Kabore hailed the hostages’ release and offered condolences to the soldiers’ families.
“The joint military intervention that allowed us to achieve these results shows our common engagement in fighting against the forces of evil,” Kabore said in a Facebook post.
The French tourists were kidnapped on May 1 in Benin’s Pendjari National Park, on Benin’s northern frontier with Burkina Faso. Their safari guide was found dead, his body riddled with bullets, and their vehicle burned.
The French government warned citizens against travelling to Benin near the Burkina Faso border because of the risk of kidnapping.
Partsof northern and eastern Burkina Faso are overrun by militants, leaving government struggling to assert authority and forcing over 100,000 residents to flee.
In February, Burkina Faso said militants were increasingly active in West Africa and instability in the Sahel was spreading to coastal countries including Benin and Ivory Coast.
Led by France, Western powers provide funding and weapons to a regional force of soldiers from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania to combat jihadists.
The so-called G5 force is hobbled by delays in disbursing money and poor co-ordination between the five countries, while insecurity escalates in the border region between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.