PARIS — As France reinforced its intervention forces in Mali with additional aircraft and soldiers, French commandos launched a failed raid on the other side of Africa in a vain attempt to rescue an intelligence officer held captive for 3½ years in Somalia, the Defense Ministry announced Saturday.
The unsuccessful overnight rescue attempt, in the Somali town of Bulomarer, was separate from President Francois Hollande’s decision Friday to intervene on the ground and in the air to shore up the crumbling Malian army against Islamist guerrilla groups that have controlled the northern two-thirds of the country for more than seven months.
But both operations seemed to propel France into a position of new prominence in Western efforts to prevent Islamist terrorist groups from establishing themselves — as they did in Afghanistan and Somalia — in countries without solid state institutions that could become launchpads for attacks on European or U.S. interests in Africa or elsewhere around the world.
The failed rescue in Somalia, which cost France the lives of at least two people, dramatized the dangers facing the French military as it takes on the Islamist groups in hostile regions of northern Africa where they have taken root. The Mali-based extremists, for instance, hold seven French hostages and threatened retaliation for Hollande’s willingness to dispatch French soldiers to help restore Malian state authority.
Four French hostages captured in September 2010 at a northern Niger uranium mine and two abducted in northern Mali in November 2010 are held by the region’s main Islamist group, the mainly Algerian al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). A seventh French citizen was taken into custody two months ago on the Mali-Nigeria border by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, an AQMI spinoff.
Some of their families have questioned Hollande’s resolution to support the government in Mali, fearing it could lead to the execution of their loved ones. But Hollande has consistently replied that the threat of international military action was the best means of pressure on the hostage takers.
The Somalia rescue operation was designed to liberate Denis Allex, the official identity of an agent of the French intelligence service, the General Directorate for External Security (DGSE). Allex and a colleague were abducted by Somali Islamists in July 2009, soon after the pair, posing as journalists, checked into a hotel in Mogadishu, the Somali capital.
In fact, reports at the time said, they were assigned by the DGSE to train the close protection squad of Somalia’s beleaguered transitional government as part of a French military aid program. Allex’s colleague escaped his captors a month later, but Allex remained in the Islamists’ hands in what the Defense Ministry described as “inhumane conditions.”
Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told a news conference that “everything indicates” Allex was killed by his captors as DGSE commandos assaulted his place of imprisonment at Bulomarer, an Islamist-controlled town about 70 miles southwest of Mogadishu.
During the fighting, one French soldier was killed and another went missing and may have been killed, Le Drian said. Seventeen members of the Somali al-Shabab guerrilla group were killed, the ministry said in a statement.
“The [French] victims’ families have been informed,” it added. “The Defense Ministry addresses them its most sincere condolences and joins in their grief.”
Al-Shabab issued a statement after the clash claiming that Allex is still alive but will be “judged within two days” for his relation to the attack, suggesting he would be executed. A wounded French soldier is also in their hands, al-Shabab claimed, apparently referring to the soldier reported missing by Le Drian.
“In the end, it will be the French citizens who will taste the inevitable bitter consequences of the irresponsible attitude of their government with regard to the hostages,” the group added.
Defense officials did not explain why they chose to launch the raid at the same time as France began its military intervention in Mali; Le Drian said the two were “totally unconnected.” French experts suggested the DGSE decided to act because it had obtained new information that enabled them to pinpoint Allex’s place of detention with a previously unavailable precision.
It was unclear what political fallout would flow from the failure in Somalia. Before the misadventure became known, leaders from across France’s political spectrum had backed Hollande’s decision to intervene in Mali.
But Herve Morin, a centrist who served as defense minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy, cracked the consensus, noting that France so far is alone in the Mali intervention despite Hollande’s earlier insistence that he would step in only to help an African intervention force.
In a statement after meeting with his military staff, Hollande reiterated that the Mali operation would last as long as necessary but described it as preparation for the arrival of a putative African intervention force.
Le Drian said “several hundred” French ground troops and an unspecified number of aircraft were involved so far in the Mali intervention. A number of French soldiers were seen deploying in Bamako, Mali’s capital, to protect French citizens.
A helicopter pilot became the first French casualty as gunship raids were carried out during the night against guerrillas along the line separating government- and Islamist-held territory around the town of Konna, 300 miles northeast of Bamako, the French Defense Ministry reported.
Le Drian credited the helicopter raids with turning the tide against the Islamist guerrillas seeking to move south from Konna toward the regional center of Mopti. Government spokesmen in Bamako affirmed that, following the French helicopter raids, Konna was back in army hands. But other reports said control of the town was still uncertain.