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Commando raid carried out to stop French hostages' transfer to militants in Mali
French special forces launched a raid to liberate two hostages in Burkina Faso to prevent them from being handed over to militant groups in neighbouring Mali, miltary chiefs said on Friday.
Two French soldiers died along with four hostage takers during the operation to free Patrick Picque and Laurent Lassimouillas who disappeared on 1 May while on safari in Benin.
Army chief-of-staff Général François Lecointre said the operation was ordered to stop a handover to the Katiba Macina jihadist groups in Mali.
Lecointre said the hostage takers had been under surveillance for several days. "Once transferred it would have been impossible to organise a rescue operation," he added.
The women who were freed - a South Korean and an American - were discovered by chance. "We didn't know they were there with the two French citizens," said French defence minister Florence Parly.
"And it seems that neither the South Korean nor American authorities were aware they were there either."
Pique, 51, and 46-year-old Lassimouillas were kidnapped on the last leg of a 14 day trip while driving with their local guide Fiacre Gbedji through the Pendjari National Park.
Gbedji's body was later discovered in the park, while the charred remains of their white Toyota jeep was found over the border in eastern Burkina Faso.
Pique and Lassimouillas are expected to return to France on Saturday to be greeted by family and well-wishers.
Picque's father, Jean-Claude Picque, said: "We are relieved at the good news. We'll be in Paris to welcome them home."
A statement from the French presidency added: "President Emmanuel Macron wants to congratulate the French armed forces for the liberation of the hostages.
"He bows with emotion and solemnity before the sacrifice of our two soldiers who gave their lives to save those of our citizens."