A French secret agent held hostage in Somalia for more than three years is alive, Al Shebab insurgents said Saturday after the French defence ministry said his captors had killed him.
"(Denis) Allex still remains safe and far from the location of the battle," the Shebab said in a news release.
However, in a separate statement, Denis Allex, a French soldier held hostage in Somalia since 2009, was killed during a raid on Friday night by French troops trying to rescue him, the French defence ministry said.
Two other French soldiers and 17 Somalian fighters were killed in the fighting, the ministry said in a statement.
"Faced with the instransigence of the terrorists, who refused to negotiate for three and and half years and who were holding Denis Allex in inhumane conditions, an operation was planned and carried out," said the ministry.
"During the assault, violent combat took place. Denis Allex was killed by his captors."
French commandoes on Saturday attacked a base of militants in Somalia in a hostage rescue attempt, a Somali intelligence official said. Residents of the town said they heard explosions and gunfire.
The attack occurred in the town of Bulomarer, and comes on the heels of French military intervention in Mali, another African country.
The intelligence official, who insisted on anonymity because he was not allowed to discuss the case with the press, said the French commandos were trying to rescue a kidnapped military advisor who they were tipped off was being held there.
A French security adviser was kidnapped by the militant group Al Shabab in Mogadishu, the capital, in 2009.
The intelligence official said the raid caused casualties but that he had no information on the hostage.
"We are aware of the deaths of several Al Shabab fighters during the operation," he said. "Helicopters dropped off soldiers to rescue the man. We don't have confirmations that the man has been rescued."
The office of Col. Thierry Burkhard, the French military's main spokesman for overseas operations, said it had no information about any Somalia action.
An Al Shabab official confirmed that fighting began after helicopters dropped off soldiers.
"Five helicopters attacked a house in the town. They dropped soldiers off the ground, so that they could reach their destination... but fighting has broken out," he said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
The Al Shabab official said that some soldiers were killed, but the group held only one dead French soldier.
"We had Mujahideen fighters already deployed there who fought back the French soldiers. We killed some of their soldiers but only one dead soldier in a French military uniform is in our hands now," he said.
With France having acted Friday to help Mali against Al Qaida-linked militants who hold more than half of that country and are encroaching further on government-held territory, the raid in Somalia could have been aimed at preventing Al Shabab fighters from harming the French hostage in reprisal. The attack was swift and loud, local residents said.
"We heard a series of explosions followed by gunfire just seconds after a helicopter flew over the town," Mohamed Ali, a resident of Bulomarer, told The Associated Press by phone. "We don't know exactly what happened but the place was an Al Shabab base and checkpoint."
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