Rescued in Burkina: the 4 hostages freed in French raid


Paris (AFP)

French special forces have rescued four foreign hostages in a complex overnight operation in northern Burkina Faso in which two of its soldiers were killed.

Here is a brief profile of those freed in the raid, two of them French, one American and a South Korean national, who were all being held by kidnappers who have not yet been identified.

- Two French tourists -

Patrick Picque and Laurent Lassimouillas disappeared on May 1 while on safari in the tiny West African nation of Benin.

They 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 is a 51-year-old jewellery maker who was born in Normandy and raised in the small town of Barenton some 250 kilometres (150 miles) west of Paris. He lives in the capital and works in a jewellery shop in the 4th district, local media said.

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 piano at the local music conservatory and conducting a symphony orchestra.

It was not immediately clear how the two men know each other.

They are due back in France on Saturday.

- Two women, American and South Korean -

French army chief General Francois Lecointre said the two other hostages, an American woman and a South Korean, had been held by the kidnappers for 28 days.

But Defence Minister Florence Parly said there was little other information about the pair, saying the special forces "were not aware of their presence" when the operation began.

"We know little about these other two hostages," she told reporters, saying all four were in "a safe place".

She added that even the South Korean and American governments did not appear to be aware their nationals were being held.

"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 Burkina territory," she explained.

South Korea's ambassador to Paris was unable to comment on the identity of the freed Korean national.

"We do not have detailed information, but we are in close contact with French authorities. I can't say anything now," Jongmoon Choi told AFP by telephone.

The United States thanked French special forces for its role in releasing the American hostage, but gave no details on her identity.

"We are grateful for the safe recovery of hostages, including an American, during a recovery operation in Burkina Faso," said Tibor Nagy, assistant secretary of state for Africa, offering "deepest condolences" to the families of the two French soldiers.

Parly said it was likely that the American woman would be "repatriated independently" from the other three, who would be flown to France on Saturday.

- Two French soldiers killed -

Cedric de Pierrepont and Alain Bertoncello, who died in the raid, were both members of the prestigious Hubert commando unit of the French naval special forces.

Normally based in southeastern France, their unit had been deployed in the Sahel region since March 30.

Born in 1986, De Pierrepont went into the French navy in 2004 before going on to train as a marine, serving in several specialist units before joining Commando Hubert in 2012. Last year, he took over as the unit's leader.

Bertoncello was born in 1991 and entered the navy in 2011. A year later, he specialised as a marine, passing the specialist commando training the same year. After five years in another unit, he passed a combat swimming course and joined Commando Hubert in 2017.