MOGADISHU // Somalia's Al Qaeda-linked rebels said today that France signed the death warrant of a French intelligence agent when it launched a rescue operation last weekend that failed to bring him home.
The militant group Al Shabab has held the French agent, Denis Allex, since July 2009. Al Shabab said in a lengthy statement today that the group decided to kill Allex in retaliation for the Friday-Saturday overnight operation. Two French soldiers and 17 Somalis were killed during the rescue attempt, French officials say.
France's defence minister has said Mr Allex is likely already dead. Al Shabab has said Mr Allex was still alive after the rescue attempt.
Vague language in Al Shabab's statement does little to make things clear. The group did not offer proof Mr Allex is alive or say when he would be executed if he is still alive.
"With the rescue attempt, France has voluntarily signed Allex's death warrant," the statement said.
Admiral Edouard Guillaud, France's military chief of staff, said officials there believe Al Shabab's announcement is propaganda.
"We have had no indication since Friday night's raid that Denis Allex, since that's his name, on the fact that Denis Allex is alive," he told Europe 1. "We think that he is in all likelihood dead. ... It's a technique that they have already resorted to in other cases that didn't concern us."
Al Shabab also said it had been willing to free Mr Allex in exchange for "Muslim prisoners". It accused France of persecuting Muslims and pointed to a recently launched military operation by French forces against Al Qaeda-linked extremists in Mali.
Transported by helicopters, the French commandos attacked the Al Shabab position early on Saturday in an attempt to free Mr Allex. France decided to stage the rescue a month ago, when Mr Allex's location seemed to have settled down "in a spot accessible by the sea". US military aircraft briefly entered Somali airspace to support the rescue operation, President Barack Obama said on Sunday, but did not use weapons.
Fierce fighting broke out after the French troops landed. French officials said they counted 17 dead among the Islamists.