MOGADISHU, Somalia – The Islamist captors of a French military agent killed him during a French commando raid in Somalia, the French Defense Ministry said Saturday. An additional two French commando and 17 Islamists also died in the fighting, it said.
Gen. Martin Klotz, a spokesman for the ministry, declined to provide details of the overnight operation aimed at rescuing spy service agent Denis Allex -- the code-name for the agent who was kidnapped by the militant Islamist group al-Shabab in Mogadishu, the capital, in 2009.
A Somali intelligence official had earlier said the raid caused casualties but that he had no information on the hostage.
Residents of the town of Bulomarer described the chaotic sounds of explosions and gunfire from what they called an al-Shabab base. An al-Shabab official said that fighting began after helicopters dropped off French 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. The identity of the soldier was not clear.
"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.
France 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."
Allex was kidnapped from a hotel in Mogadishu on July 14, 2009 with a colleague who later escaped. They were in Somalia to train government forces, which are fighting Islamist militiamen.
In October, French President Francois Hollande pledged to "use all means" to contact "anyone who can help free our hostages."