French troops free hostages in Burkina Faso

French hostages Laurent Lassimouillas (left) and Patrick Picque, kidnapped in Benin and now rescued by French forces, 10 May 2019

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AFP

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Frenchmen Laurent Lassimouillas (L) and Patrick Picque are among four captives freed

Four foreign hostages have been freed by French forces in the West African country of Burkina Faso, France says.

Commanders launched the operation to rescue two French tourists snatched in neighbouring Benin earlier this month, before they could be handed over to militants in Mali.

During the raid special forces found the kidnappers were also holding a US woman and a South Korean woman.

Two French soldiers and four kidnappers were killed during the raid.

What do we know about the raid?

The night operation took place in the north of Burkina Faso as the kidnappers stopped on their journey towards Mali, the head of the French military said.

Commanders decided to launch the raid because the kidnappers were close to the Malian border and were believed to be planning to hand the hostages over to the Mali-based militant group Katiba Macina.

“Once the hostages were in their hands it would have been impossible to rescue them,” General François Lecointre told reporters.

Gen Lecointre said that during the raid, special forces had covered 200m of open ground and got to within 10m of the shelter where the hostages were being held before being spotted by a guard.

The two French soldiers who died were killed at close quarters as they entered one of the kidnappers’ four shelters, he said. Two of the kidnappers escaped.

The special forces did not expect to find the US and South Korean hostages because there had been no information that the kidnappers were holding anyone else, French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said.

Ms Parly said the kidnappers’ identity was not yet known but there were two main militant groups operating near where the French tourists were taken, one linked to al-Qaeda and the other to the Islamic State group.

The two soldiers who were killed during the rescue were named as Cédric de Pierrepont and Alain Bertoncello. The French military posted their photos on social media.

Ms Parly thanked the militaries of Benin and Burkina Faso for their help in the operation and said the US had provided “precious” intelligence support.

Who are the hostages?

Frenchmen Patrick Picque and Laurent Lassimouillas, both music teachers, disappeared in the remote Pendjari National Park in Benin where they had been on safari. Their local guide was found dead.

The park is on the border with Burkina Faso where Islamist militants have been increasingly active in recent months.

The other two liberated hostages had apparently already been in the kidnappers’ hands for 28 days, Gen Lecointre said.

South Korean media quoted a government official as saying the authorities had had no report of a missing citizen and they were trying to establish the rescued woman’s citizenship.

President Emmanuel Macron is to receive the two French hostages and the South Korean at Villacoublay outside Paris on Saturday, French news outlet BFMTV reports.

What reaction has there been?

A statement from the French said Mr Macron “bows with emotion and solemnity before the sacrifice of our two soldiers who gave their lives to save those of our citizens”.

Ms Parly said “terrorists who attack France and French citizens should know that we will spare no effort to track them down and fight them”.

France has 4,500 troops based in the Sahel region on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert as part of its Operation Barkhane – an ongoing coalition effort in Africa’s Sahel region to fight jihadist insurgents.