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French ex-hostages arrive in Paris after Burkina Faso rescue

Francois Guillot, Pool, Reuters | French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Defence Minister Florence Parly walk alongside freed French hostages Patrick Picque and Laurent Lassimouillas and a South Korean hostage as they arrive in Paris, May 11, 2019

Three former hostages, including two French nationals, arrived in Paris on Saturday evening after being rescued from a militant group in Burkina Faso by French special forces in a night-time raid. Two of the soldiers were killed in the operation.

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The two French former hostages, Laurent Lassimouillas, 46, and Patrick Picque, 51, were met by French President Emmanuel Macron, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Defence Minister Florence Parly at Villacoublay military airport.

"France's message to terrorists is clear: those who want to attack France, the French, should know that we will hunt them, we will find them, and we will kill them," Parly said.

A South Korean embassy official was present to greet the unnamed third hostage. An American female hostage also freed in the nighttime rescue on Thursday was handed over to US officials in Burkina Faso.

'Co-operation of terror groups raises risks in Sahel'

Addressing reporters at the airport Saturday, Lassimouillas admitted that he and Picque should have heeded the French foreign ministry's advice to avoid risky areas of Benin.

"We certainly should have better taken into account the government's advice as well as the complexities of Africa," he said.

"Our first thoughts go to the families of the soldiers who freed us from this hell," he continued.

A ceremony of national tribute will be held at the Invalides military hospital and mausoleum in Paris on Tuesday for the two soldiers who were killed in this “highly complex operation”, as Parly described the raid on Friday.

Kidnapped tourists were in Benin 'red zone'

Lassimouillas and Picque disappeared during a tour of Pendjari National Park in Benin on May 1.

They were seized by kidnappers in an area of Benin that France has long advised travellers to avoid, Le Drian pointed out earlier on 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.

French tourists warned to avoid Benin's 'red zone'

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.

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

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.

Macron gave the order for the nighttime raid on the militants' camp on Thursday. The French commandos were unaware of the presence of the American and South Korean hostages, officials said.

'France's duty is to rescue its citizens wherever they are'

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 on 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 AP, AFP and REUTERS)

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