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French military operation to free Sahel hostages ‘highly complex’

HO / MARINE NATIONALE / AFP | This handout photo released by the Marine Nationale on May 10, 2019 shows French soldiers Cedric de Pierrepont and Alain Bertoncello.

French commandos rescued four foreign hostages including two French citizens from a militant group in Burkina Faso, France's military said on Friday, adding that two of the elite soldiers were killed in the night-time operation.

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The French military had been tracking the gang of hostage-takers across the arid terrain of eastern Burkina Faso for days before deciding to launch the night-time rescue mission that would cost the lives of two commandos.

Since May 1, when two French tourists went missing in a wildlife park in neighbouring Benin, French soldiers and Special Forces from the regional Barkhane force had swung into action in the hunt for their kidnappers.

On May 7, a first Special Forces mission was launched inside Burkina Faso which returned vital information on the gang of six hostage-takers who were thought to be heading for lawless Mali to the northwest, France’s army chief Francois Lecointre said during a news conference.

As the group travelled across the country - in view of drones known to be operated by French and American forces in the area - French military waited for them to stop and an opportunity to intervene.

Special battlefield medical teams flown from Paris

In the meantime, specialised battlefield medical teams were flown from Paris to be moved in by helicopter when the final order came to launch an assault.

"It was an extremely complex operation, with extremely demanding timings," Lecointre told reporters in a detailed briefing on the operation in Paris with Defence Minister Florence Parly.

French military commanders judged that Thursday night's stop in northern Burkina Faso by the gang was the last opportunity to intervene before the hostages were taken into Mali and transferred to an Islamist militant group there.

FRANCE 24's Wassim Nasr discusses the hostages' release

"It was the last opportunity to carry out an operation in Burkina Faso. If the hostages had been transferred to Mali, an operation like this would have been too risky," Parly said.

"It was important to act quickly. I continue to think it was the right decision to do it," she added.

Commandos dropped by helicopter

French President Emmanuel Macron, who was in Romania for a meeting with fellow European leaders, was informed and approved the intervention on Thursday evening, making use of a recently-concluded military cooperation deal with Burkina Faso.

Around 20 French commandos were then dropped by helicopter at distance from the camp where the hostage-takers and their victims were thought to be sleeping.

Approaching in silence under the cover of darkness, the teams got past a guard and to within a few metres of the four shelters where the hostages were being held before they were finally detected, Lecointre said.

The soldiers ‘went inside without opening fire’

"The commandos went inside the shelters without opening fire," he added, underlining the difficulty of hostage situations even for highly-trained Special Forces who have to be careful not to harm the people they are rescuing.

Two French soldiers died in shots fired at close range by the hostage-takers.

Four of the gang were killed in return fire and two escaped.

‘No one was aware of’ the presence of an American and a South Korean hostages

To their surprise, instead of finding just two French male tourists, the rescue teams discovered two women as well - an American and a South Korean.

"No one was aware of their presence," Parly explained, while Lecointre said they had "apparently (been held) for 28 days".

"The contacts we have had in recent hours with the United States and South Korea indicate that these countries were probably not aware of the presence of their nationals on Burkinabe territory," Parly explained.

But Defence Minister Florence Parly said there was little other information about the pair. "We know little about these other two hostages," she told reporters, saying all four were in "a safe place".

She thanked authorities in Benin and Burkina Faso for their help with the "complex operation", as well as the United States which provided intelligence and support.

French Hostages kidnapped while visiting the Pendjari national Park

French citizens Patrick Picque and Laurent Lassimouillas were kidnapped on the last leg of a two-week trip while driving with their local guide Fiacre Gbedji through the remote Pendjari National Park.

A wildlife reserve known for its elephants and lions, it lies close to Benin's porous northwestern border with Burkina Faso which has been repeatedly hit by Islamist violence.

The pair went off on safari and were due back at the lodge where they were staying that evening, but never showed up.

Three days later, the badly-disfigured body of their guide was discovered in the park, while the charred remains of their white Toyota jeep was found over the border in eastern Burkina.

Pique was born in Normandy and is a 51-year-old jewellery maker who lives in Paris and works in a jewellery shop in the 4th district.

Lassimouillas, 46, was born in the southern port city of Marseille, but has lived and worked in the southern Paris suburb of Longjumeau for 24 years, teaching the piano at the local music conservatory and conducting a symphony orchestra.

USA offers its thanks and condolences

The United States on Friday thanked French Special Forces for freeing the hostages including the American citizen and offered condolences to the families of two soldiers who died.

"We are grateful for the safe recovery of hostages, including an American, during a recovery operation in Burkina Faso," said Tibor Nagy, the assistant secretary of state for Africa.

"I offer my deepest condolences to the families of the French soldiers killed during the operation," he tweeted.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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