France remembers troops slain in Burkina Faso hostage raid; row sparked over 'careless' tourists

French soldiers of the counter-terrorism Barkhane mission in Africa's Sahel region standing guard by the coffins of their comrades during a funeral cerenomy at their base camp in northern Burkina Faso, on May 13, 2019.
French soldiers of the counter-terrorism Barkhane mission in Africa's Sahel region standing guard by the coffins of their comrades during a funeral cerenomy at their base camp in northern Burkina Faso, on May 13, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - France is to pay its final respects on Tuesday (May 14) to two commandos killed during a raid to rescue four hostages in the Sahel region of Africa last week that has sparked a row over the risks taken by the freed tourists.

French special forces officers Cedric de Pierrepont, 33, and Alain Bertoncello, 28, who died in the operation in Burkina Faso, will be honoured in a ceremony led by President Emmanuel Macron at the Invalides military complex in Paris on Tuesday.

The raid last week freed French hostages Patrick Picque and Laurent Lassimouillas who had been seized on May 1 while on a safari trip in a nature park in Benin close to the border with Burkina Faso.

An American citizen and South Korean tourist - both women whose presence was a total surprise to the French forces - were also freed from captivity in the operation overnight last Thursday and Friday.

There has been an outpouring of grief in France over the sacrifice of the two young troops, but also anger and controversy over the French tourists who were visiting an area subject to a travel warning by the foreign ministry.

Leading French daily Le Figaro in an editorial Monday paid tribute to the armed forces but said that the freeing of the tourists had "left a bitter taste".

"This tragic event should serve as a warning to our tourists. Our forces are in Africa for a hard and long war and not to pay the price of carelessness," it wrote.

Last Saturday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian reprimanded the freed men, aged 51 and 46, who he said had taken "significant risks" by visiting an area that was considered a "red" no-go zone under travel advice issued by his ministry.

 
 

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen also criticised Mr Macron over the weekend for going to a military airport south of Paris to meet the tourists off the plane when they arrived back from Burkina Faso.

"The President shouldn't have gone to greet them almost as if they were heroes," Ms Le Pen told the BFM news channel in an interview.

Mr Hubert Falco, the mayor of Toulon in southern France where the soldiers' unit is based, wrote on Twitter last Saturday that "the only fellow citizens who deserve the nation's tribute today are our two heroes... who died in combat to save foolish tourists!" Mr Macron's body language was notably cold as he met Mr Picque and Mr Lassimouillas at the Villacoublay airstrip.

Defence Minister Florence Parly defended the 41-year-old leader's presence, saying as "head of the armed forces, it's the president who takes responsibility for launching this action".

"He needed to go there," she told France Inter on Monday. "It was important for the troops but also for the nation."

ESSENTIAL TRAVEL?

French officials have argued that the raid came in a key window of opportunity as the hostage-takers were planning to transfer their victims to Islamist groups in Mali aligned to either Al-Qaeda or Islamic State.

Mr Lassimouillas admitted that he and Mr Picque should have taken into account the foreign ministry advisories in a statement read out as the men arrived back in France.

"Our first thoughts go to the families of the soldiers who freed us from this hell," he said.

The men were snatched by an armed group while visiting the Pendjari National Park in Benin, which borders increasingly unstable Burkina Faso.

The border area, where the men were believed to have been kidnapped, was considered a red "no-go" zone, while the whole of the park was classed in the intermediate "orange" category by the French foreign ministry.

This means only essential travel was recommended.

The funeral procession on Tuesday will roll over the Alexander III bridge in central Paris, where ordinary French citizens have been invited to pay their respects.

Mr Macron will then lead a private commemoration ceremony at the Invalides for the two soldiers from the elite Hubert squad of the French navy's special forces.

Mr Pierrepont's partner Florence Charton told TF1 TV: "He died for what he loved doing, for the thing that made him proud. He was doing his job. This is what he would tell me."

The deaths were a reminder of the risks encountered in the region by French forces, who have been deployed in the Sahel since 2013 when France intervened to drive back extremist groups who had taken control of northern Mali.

A total of 26 French soldiers have died in the deployment including Mr Pierrepont and Mr Bertoncello.