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French ex-hostages arrive in Burkina Faso capital, pay tribute to soldiers killed

Ahmed Ouoba, AFP | The three former hostages arrive in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

Four foreign hostages, including two French citizens, arrived in the capital of Burkina Faso Saturday after being rescued by French special forces in a daring night-time raid. Two of the elite soldiers were killed in the operation.

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Looking tired, the former hostages arrived in the presidential palace in Ouagadougou in the morning and met with Burkina Faso President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. Later on Saturday, they will travel to Paris, to be greeted by President Emmanuel Macron and senior government and military officials. An American former hostage who was released at the same time as the other three was not present at the reception in Ouagadougou.

One of the French former hostages, Laurent Lassimouillas, paid tribute to the two French soldiers killed in the rescue operation: “Our thoughts go out to the soldiers’ families, and to the soldiers who lost their lives to free us from this hell; we wanted to offer our condolences right away,” he said.

There will be a ceremony of national tribute in Paris on Monday for the two soldiers who were killed in this “highly complex operation”, as Defence Minister Florence Parly described it.

France pays tribute to soldiers killed in Sahel hostage rescue

Kidnapped tourists were in Benin 'red zone'

The two French tourists rescued from their kidnappers in Burkina Faso this week were seized in an area of Benin that France has long advised travellers to avoid, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Saturday.

"The zone where our two citizens were has for some time now been considered a red zone, which means it's a zone where you shouldn't go, where you're taking significant risks if you do go," Le Drian told Europe 1 radio.

The foreign ministry's travel advisory website lists the areas of northern Benin near the border with Burkina Faso as "Formally Discouraged," including Pendjari National Park.

Rescued French hostage Laurent Lassimouillas pays tribute to slain soldiers

It warns of "the presence of armed terrorist groups and the risk of kidnapping".

The French tourists, Patrick Picque, 51, and Lassimouillas, 46, disappeared during a tour of Pendjari on May 1.

The disfigured body of their guide was found shortly after they were reported missing, along with their abandoned Toyota truck.

Intelligence agencies tracked their captors across the semi-desert terrain of eastern Burkina Faso, where it appeared they would soon cross the border into Mali.

Officials feared the hostages would be handed over to the Macina Liberation Front (FLM), a jihadist group formed in 2015 that is aligned with al Qaeda in the region.

A look at political instability in the Sahel region

French President Emmanuel Macron gave the order for the nighttime raid Thursday on the militants' camp, in which Picque and Lassimouillas were freed, along with an American woman and a South Korean woman.

The French commandos were unaware of the presence of the two other hostages, officials said.

'Avoid the sacrifices'

Although Benin has long been spared the unrest seen in Mali and Burkina Faso, French officials have warned that jihadist insurgents could extend their operations into the sparsely populated desert regions further south.

"The threat is evolving and has become much more mobile, and now countries to the south of Mali have become targets," Le Drian said Saturday.

"The greatest precautions must be taken in these regions to avoid these types of kidnappings, and avoid the sacrifices required by our soldiers," he said.

France's Operation Barkhane counts some 4,500 troops deployed in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad to help local forces battle jihadist groups.

The raid on the kidnappers was led by the elite Hubert commando unit of the French naval special forces, which was deployed to the Sahel at the end of March.

They were assisted by Burkina and Benin authorities and by the United States, which provided intelligence and support.

A total of 24 French soldiers have died in the region since 2013 when France intervened to drive back jihadist groups who had taken control of northern Mali.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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