MOGADISHU, Somalia – The night of mayhem and death started with the sound of helicopters above pitch-black fields. When it was over, the French intelligence agent who had been held hostage for more than three years was almost certainly dead, as was at least one French commando, and the home that served as the agent’s final jail was destroyed. And now the Somalis living in the muddy farm town had new cause to fear the militants controlling their street.
It was too dark to see beyond the brief glow of flashlights, but noise was everywhere, said Ali Bulhan, who woke up when the earth started vibrating to the beat of the helicopter rotors. And the flashlights were abruptly extinguished when the French soldiers shot the Somalis who had turned them on to see what was happening in their town in the dead of night, said town elder Hussein Yasin.
The commandos were there to free a French intelligence agent captured on Bastille Day in 2009. The man, known by his code-name Denis Allex, was chained up, abused and moved from one safe house to another, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Sunday. Le Drian said the government decided to stage the rescue a month ago, when Allex’s location seemed to have settled down “in a spot accessible by the sea.”
Helicopters were dispatched from a French ship that had been on an enforced news blackout for weeks, according to the French newspaper Le Point. When the commandos arrived in Bulomarer late Friday, children began screaming in confusion and fighters from the Islamist al-Shabab, which has controlled the town for years, began racing along the streets, their cellphones pressed to their ears.
“They had a terrible night as well,” said Ali Bulhan, who refused to give his last name for fear of reprisal.
President Barack Obama said Sunday that the U.S. military provided “imited technical support” to French forces leading the operation, but the Americans had no direct role in the assault on the al-Shabab compound. Obama disclosed the U.S. role Sunday in a letter alerting Congress about the deployment of U.S. forces.
Obama said U.S. combat aircraft briefly entered Somali airspace to support the rescue operation, if needed, but did not employ their weapons during the operation. The president said he directed U.S. forces to support the French rescue operation “in furtherance of U.S. national security interests.”
The local accounts, along with that of a Somali intelligence official and the French defence minister, offer a glimpse into a chaotic rescue attempt in which nothing seemed to go as planned.
“Extracting a hostage is extremely difficult,” Le Drian said.
Yasin said the gunbattle started on the ground when the French commandos encountered an Islamist checkpoint. Al Bulhan said only a few hours could have passed between that moment and the time when the French helicopters stopped firing on homes and instead ferried the surviving French troops to safety “but it felt like an entire day.”
French officials, including the president, and a Somali intelligence official said Allex was almost certainly killed by his captors. The intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to speak to the press, said Sunday that the home where the agent was held was destroyed in the attack Saturday, and that intelligence networks “do not have any information indicating he is still alive.”
Al-Shabab has offered no proof for its claims that Allex was still alive and that a wounded French soldier was in its custody as well. French officials acknowledge a missing soldier, but say they believe he is dead.
“Bullets rattled every corner,” Ali Bulhan said. “Helicopters were firing at nearby homes.”
The fighting took an even steeper toll on the Islamists, according to French officials and locals. Ali Bulhan said he thought the fighters had already taken away the bodies of their comrades. French officials said they counted 17 dead among the Islamists.
After the sounds of battle faded and the helicopters were gone, frightened al-Shabab fighters locked down the town, added checkpoints, arrested junior commanders for fear someone had tipped off the French forces, and seized cellphones of residents, Ali Bulhan said.
“I was told that the dead French soldier was hiding and was shot after he turned on a flashlight,” he said. He did not know when, but later saw the body of a European being dragged into a car.
Businesses shut down for the day Sunday.
“It was a burial day for the fighters,” Ali Bulhan said, “and a deadly day for the French as well.”