French special forces have freed two French hostages, an American and a South Korean in northern Burkina Faso in an overnight raid in which two soldiers died, authorities announced Friday.
The operation was ordered to free the French tourists, identified as Patrick Picque and Laurent Lassimouillas, who disappeared while on holiday in the remote Pendjari National Park in neighbouring Benin on May 1.
The identity of the American and South Korean hostages was not immediately known, but they were both said to be women in a statement form the French presidency.
The location of the raid indicated that the French tourists had been kidnapped in Benin and taken over the nearby border into Burkina Faso, where Islamist terror groups have stepped up attacks in recent months.
President Emmanuel Macron “wants to congratulate the French armed forces for the liberation of the hostages, and includes everyone who worked alongside them,” the statement from the presidency said.
“He bows with emotion and solemnity before the sacrifice of our two soldiers who gave their lives to save those of our citizens,” the statement added.
In a separate statement, Defence Minister Florence Parly thanked authorities in Benin and Burkina Faso for their help with the “complex operation”, as well as the United States for its “precious support”.
Four kidnappers were killed in the raid, the French army said, adding that the American military had provided intelligence.
Former colonial ruler France has 4,500 troops deployed in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad in a mission codenamed Barkhane to help local forces in their battle with jihadist groups.
American special forces and drones are also known to operate in the violence-wracked Sahel region, which France fears could become further destabilised as jihadist groups are pushed out of north Africa, Iraq and Syria.
Burkina Faso has suffered from increasingly frequent and deadly attacks attributed to a number of jihadist groups, including the Ansarul Islam group, the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM) and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.
Relief and sadness
The French tourists, a jewellery seller and a piano teacher and orchestra conductor based in the Paris region aged 51 and 46, went missing with their wildlife guide on the last leg of their holiday in usually peaceful Benin.
The Pendjari wildlife reserve, which is famed for its elephants and lions, lies close to the porous border with Burkina Faso.
The badly disfigured body of their guide was found shortly after they disappeared, as well as their abandoned four-wheel Toyota truck.
The two men are expected to travel back to France this weekend, probably on Saturday.
“We’ll travel up to Paris to welcome them off the plane,” Jean-Claude Picque, the father of hostage Patrick Picque, told AFP from his home in northern France.
“They told us that hostage-takings can be very long, but in the end it worked out ok, but not for the soldiers,” he said.
The two dead soldiers were named as Cedric de Pierrepont and Alain Bertoncello, decorated naval special forces members born in 1986 and 1991 respectively.
They were part of the “Task Force Sabre” unit which is based in Burkina Faso.
A total of 24 French soldiers from the Barkhane force have died in the region since 2013 when France intervened in Mali to drive back jihadist groups who had taken control of the north of the country.
The last death was announced on April 2 when a military doctor was killed in Mali when his armoured vehicle hit an improvised explosive device during an operation near the border with Burkina Faso.
Macron has repeatedly called on France’s allies to help fund and train a new regional African military force called the G5 Sahel, which experts continue to see as under-equipped and still heavily dependent on French firepower.
South Korea’s ambassador in 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 US embassy in Paris declined to comment.