PARIS — French special forces failed early Saturday in a hostage rescue mission in southern Somalia.
French President Francois Hollande, in a brief, somber televised statement Saturday evening, said that two French soldiers had died in the mission and that the hostage, a French intelligence officer, was "assassinated" by his Islamist captors despite the militants' claims that he was still alive.
An official said 17 militants also were killed.
French officials had earlier been cautious about the fate of the hostage, an agent using the name Denis Allex, and had said that one soldier had died and another was missing.
France's defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, insisted that the rescue mission was unconnected to the French military action in Mali that began Friday against Islamist radicals who were threatening to seize more of that country. But Islamist groups holding up to eight French hostages in northern Africa have threatened to kill them if the French intervened militarily on the continent.
Hollande called the mission in Somalia a failure and took responsibility for ordering it.
Allex was taken hostage on July 14, 2009, Bastille Day, from a hotel in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, along with a colleague who later escaped. The French said the two had been working as security consultants to the transitional government in Somalia.
The rescue operation, using helicopters, was a significant one that met "very strong resistance," Le Drian said at a morning news conference.
Le Drian said that Allex was in the location raided, and that 17 al-Shabab fighters had been killed in the operation.
In a statement later Saturday, al-Shabab said that Allex was still alive and was being held in a different place, and that it was holding an injured French soldier. The militant group "will give its final verdict" regarding Allex within two days, the group said in a statement in English linked to a post on its Twitter account, but Hollande said unequivocally that he had been killed.
The president did not say how he knew Allex had died. The movement also had said that the raid was carried out about 2 a.m. by five French helicopters in the southern Somali town of Bula-Marer and that it lasted about 45 minutes. "Instead of rescuing them, such ill-advised operations only further imperil the lives of the hostages," the statement said.
French military officials would not confirm those details or the name of the town.
Le Drian said that the rescue operation had been planned for some time and had been delayed by weather.