France defends failed Somali raid as civilian toll mounts
Somali witnesses said at least eight civilians were killed in a disastrous French operation to rescue a secret agent, but France's defence minister defended the decision to launch the raid.
Sources in lawless Somalia suggested the reason Saturday's raid had failed was that the Al Qaeda-linked Shebab group holding the hostage had received advance warning.
The United States meanwhile, confirmed that it had played a limited support role in the French mission.
"Four civilians, including three from one family, are among the dead," resident Adan Derow said by telephone Sunday. "They were all killed outside Bulomarer, where the French commandos landed before entering the city."
The victims were a couple, their son and another man, other residents said.
"We don't know why those civilians were killed" outside Bulomarer, where the raid took place, added another resident, Ali Moalim Hassan.
"Four other civilians were also caught in the crossfire and died in the town of Bulomarer" during a pitched battle between French commandos and Islamist fighters. They included a woman, her child and a local market guard, residents said.
On Saturday, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said one French soldier had died and another had gone missing during the raid, adding that 17 guerrillas had been killed.
He said "all indications" pointed to the conclusion that the hostage, a French intelligence agent with the alias of Denis Allex, had been killed by his captors.
The Shebab denied Allex was dead, but said they would decide his fate within two days. They also claimed they had captured a wounded member of the French assault team.
Le Drian said Sunday that French troops had underestimated the Islamist rebels' strength when they launched the overnight operation, which involved some 50 troops and at least five helicopters.
Derow told AFP people had seen the French commandos disembark in the fields.
"The Shebab were alerted that the helicopters had landed and that they let out soldiers, and so they (the Islamists) were able to prepare," he added.
Senior Shebab commander Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim confirmed to AFP by telephone that their fighters had been alerted, but did not say how.
In Washington, President Barack Obama acknowledged that US forces had provided limited technical support for the operation, but said they had played no role in the fighting.
"United States combat aircraft briefly entered Somali airspace to support the rescue operation, if needed," Obama wrote in a letter to Congress. They had not used their weapons during the operation, he added.
Le Drian, faced with questions at home over the failure of the operation -- the latest in a series of such fiascos -- defended the decision to approve the raid.
"It's good to talk, to look for a deal, but we cannot bow to unreasonable conditions, as was the case with the Shebab," the minister told French radio Europe 1 Sunday.
"The Shebab were asking for the release of I don't know how many jihadist prisoners around the world. It was strictly impossible and completely unrealistic," he said.
But local Somalis expressed anger over the assault.
"They killed innocent civilians and left without accomplishing anything. The people here are very disappointed in the French government on account of the civilian victims," said Bulomarer resident Moalim Ahmed Nur.
"We were told there were about 40 of them against more than 100 heavily armed Shebab fighters," said another Somali, who wished to remain anonymous. "Their mission was impossible and not very professional."
France has a recent history of botched operations, including a failed joint raid with Niger forces in 2011 that left both hostages dead and another in Mali that led to the hostage's execution.
In 2009, French commandos launched a raid to free a French family whose yacht had been hijacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. They retook the boat but accidentally shot the father dead.