PARIS • French commandos rescued four foreign hostages, including two French citizens, from a militant group in Burkina Faso, France's military said on Friday, adding that two of the elite soldiers were killed in the night operation.
French special forces carried out the raid under cover of darkness over Thursday-Friday, supported by US intelligence and troops from France's Barkhane operation deployed in the Sahel region to counter Islamist militants.
All four hostages were safe, President Emmanuel Macron's office said, adding that a US woman and a South Korean woman were also freed in the covert operation.
Describing the militant group as "terrorists", French army chief Francois Lecointre told a news conference: "The precise and determined actions of French soldiers allowed us to take out the kidnappers while protecting the lives of the hostages."
Four kidnappers were killed and two escaped, he said. Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly told reporters: "Those who attack France and the French know that we will spare no effort to track them and take them out. We will never abandon our citizens."
The French forces had not been aware of the presence of the US and South Korean hostages ahead of the operation and they had been held for 28 days, General Lecointre said.
"The American will be repatriated separately," Ms Parly said. "The contacts (with those countries) show that these countries were not necessarily aware of their presence."
A spokesman for the US State Department said the US was grateful for the successful recovery of the hostages, including its citizen, and offered condolences to the families of the two solders killed.
South Korea had confirmed the identity of its citizen, a woman in her 40s, its foreign ministry said.
France, the former colonial power in the region, intervened in Mali in 2013 against Islamist militants then occupying Mali's north and has since kept about 4,500 troops in the Sahel.
The region has seen a spike in violence by militants linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group in past years, highlighting the difficulty international partners face in restoring stability.
Burkina Faso's President Roch Kabore hailed the hostages' release and offered condolences to the dead soldiers' families.
"The joint military intervention that allowed us to achieve these results shows our common engagement in fighting against the forces of evil," Mr Kabore said in a Facebook post.
The two French tourists were kidnapped on May 1 in Benin's Pendjari National Park, which lies on the northern frontier with Burkina Faso. The two men's safari guide was found dead, his body riddled with bullets, and their vehicle burned.
The French government had warned its citizens against travelling to parts of Benin near the Burkina Faso border because of the risk of kidnapping.
Swathes of northern and eastern Burkina Faso have been overrun by militants, leaving the government struggling to assert authority and forcing over 100,000 residents to flee.