French soldier killed and hostage feared dead in Somalia
A French soldier has been killed in Somalia during a failed operation to free a hostage who is also believed to have died, the defence minister said.
Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters in Paris that a second soldier was missing after the operation.
A battle erupted with al-Shabab militants after commandos swooped on the town of Bulo Marer overnight.
The raid came hours after French troops intervened in the west African state of Mali.
France was "engaged in a merciless fight against terrorism wherever it is found", Mr Le Drian said.
It seems likely that the operation was linked to the intervention in Mali, the BBC's Hugh Schofield reports from Paris.
The French government knew well the intervention would have dangerous implications for the nine French hostages being held across northern Africa, our correspondent says.Bodies
Mr Le Drian said "all the indications" were that hostage Denis Allex, kidnapped in Somalia in July 2009, had been killed by his captors during the operation.
End Quote Idris Youssouf Bulo Marer resident
This morning we saw several corpses including that of a white man”
But al-Shabab said Mr Allex, an agent of France's DGSE intelligence service, was not in the area and was unharmed.
Earlier, the French defence ministry announced that he had been killed. It also said that two French soldiers had died in the fighting, along with 17 militants in the town in the lower Shebelle region.
In a statement, al-Shabab reported a "fierce firefight" that lasted 45 minutes.
Giving no details of its own casualties, the group said it had killed "several" French soldiers and had captured an injured soldier.
The injured soldier would be shown to the press, once security allowed, the group said.
French hostages still held in Africa
- Pierre Legrand, 26, Daniel Larribe, 59, Thierry Dole, 29, and Marc Feret, 43, were kidnapped in northern Niger in 2010 by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
- Philippe Verdon and Serge Lazarevic, were kidnapped in northern Mali in November 2011 by AQIM.
- Gilberto Rodriguez Leal, 61, was kidnapped in western Mali in November 2012 by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao).
- Francis Collomp, 63, was kidnapped in Nigeria by Islamist group Ansaru.
Mr Allex, according to al-Shabaab, was "safe and far from the location of the battle". An announcement about his fate would be made within two days, the group said, promising "bitter consequences" for the French government.
Residents told the BBC that at least four civilians including a pregnant woman were killed and others wounded in cross-fire.
They reported seeing the body of a foreign soldier lying on the ground, with helicopters hovering over him.
One unnamed resident said: "Last night while I was sleeping I heard small-arms fire..
"After 10 minutes of shooting, helicopters joined the fight and started firing at targets on the ground, and people on the ground were firing back.
"Nobody could get out of their houses. The helicopters were hovering over the town."Pilot killed
Of the other French hostages, at least six are being held by the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb group, AFP news agency reports.
Mr Allex appeared in a video in June 2010, appealing to France to drop its support for the Somali government.
He last appeared in another video in October, looking gaunt and calling on French President Francois Hollande to work for his release.
Somalia has not had an effective central government for more than two decades.
France has a large military base in neighbouring Djibouti, including army, marine and air force units.
On Friday, President Hollande announced that French forces were supporting an offensive by the Malian government to regain territory captured by Islamist militants in the north.
It was confirmed that French jets had made air strikes as Islamist rebels were forced out of the town of Konna.
Mr Le Drian said a French helicopter pilot was killed in the fighting.
Mr Hollande said Islamists had been trying to turn Mali into a "terrorist" state and the French intervention complied with international law and had been agreed with Malian interim President Dioncounda Traore.