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Officials: French agent held by al-Qaida group in Somalia killed in rescue attempt

Al-Kataib Media / MAXPPP via EPA

This undated TV grab of footage by Al-Kataib Media shows Denis Allex, a French agent held by Somali militants.

Updated at 3:40 p.m. ET: PARIS/MOGADISHU - A French intelligence officer held hostage in Somalia since 2009 was killed along with at least one other soldier during a botched rescue attempt by French troops on Friday night, the French Defense Ministry said Saturday.

"Commandos broke into where Allex was being detained last night and immediately faced strong resistance," Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters.

Another commando is missing.

The deaths in Somalia coincided with the killing of a pilot in air strikes in Mali, however, striking a double blow to the start of a campaign that represents President Francois Hollande's biggest foreign policy test since his May election.

Adding confusion to the fallout of the agent's rescue effort, the Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen insurgent group holding Denis Allex said in a statement that he was still alive and being held at a location far from the base where French military helicopters attacked overnight.

The insurgent group said that the injured French commando "is now in the custody of the mujahideen."

"Several French soldiers were killed in the battle and many more were injured before they fled from the scene of battle, leaving behind some military paraphernalia and even one of their comrades on the ground," they said in the statement.

French Army chief Admiral Edouard Guillaud did not confirm whether this was true: "If he is alive then he could be, but he could also be hiding," he told reporters.

Both sides described a fierce firefight during the raid on the Horn of Africa country that France said was carried out by France's external intelligence agency for which Allex worked.

A Somali official in Bula Mareer, about 75 miles south of Mogadishu, said French helicopters attacked overnight.

"Helicopters attacked al Shabaab at 2.00 a.m. this morning. Two civilians died in the crossfire," said Ahmed Omar Mohamed, deputy chairman for lower Shabelle region.

An al Shabaab official who asked not to be named said they exchanged fire with French commandos. "Three helicopters dropped French commandos. We exchanged fire," the official said.

'Inhumane conditions'
Allex was one of two officers from his intelligence agency kidnapped by al Shabaab in Mogadishu in July 2009. His colleague, Marc Aubriere, escaped a month later but Allex had been held ever since in what Paris called "inhumane conditions."

The ministry said he was kidnapped while carrying out an aid mission with the Somali government. France has previously said the two men were in the Somali capital to train local forces.

A video of Allex pleading with Hollande to negotiate his release and save his life appeared on a website in October used by Islamist militant groups around the world. Reuters could not verify its authenticity.

Hollande said at the time the government was seeking to start talks with any party able to facilitate Allex's release.

After his abduction, al Shabaab issued a series of demands, which included an end to French support for the Somali government and the withdrawal of African Union peacekeepers, whose 17,600-strong troops are helping battle the rebels.

Under pressure from the peacekeeping troops and Somali government forces, al Shabaab has lost many of its major urban strongholds in south-central Somalia since it launched a rebellion against the Western-backed government in 2007.

The rebels, who want to impose their strict interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law, across the Horn of Africa state, withdrew from the capital Mogadishu in August last year and lost their last major bastion of Kismayu six weeks ago.

Read more coverage of Somalia from NBC News