Three hostages freed in Burkina Faso in a special forces raid in which two French soldiers died on Saturday arrived in France to be greeted by President Emmanuel Macron.
The president and other top officials greeted Frenchmen Patrick Picque, 51, and Laurent Lassimouillas, 46, and a South Korean woman as they disembarked from the plane sent to fetch them at the Villacourblay military airport southwest of Paris.
A South Korean embassy official was present to greet the unnamed third hostage. An American female hostage also freed in the nighttime rescue on Thursday was handed over to US officials in Burkina Faso.
Addressing reporters at the airport Saturday, Lassimouillas admitted that he and Picque should have heeded the French foreign ministry’s advice to avoid risky areas of Benin.
“We certainly should have better taken into account the government’s advice as well as the complexities of Africa,” he said.
“Our first thoughts go to the families of the soldiers who freed us from this hell.”
The two women were discovered during the raid and had apparently had been held by the captors for a month.
French Defence Minister Florence Parly said earlier even Seoul and Washington did not appear to be aware the pair were in increasingly unstable Burkina Faso.
Macron has announced plans for a national tribute on Tuesday to the soldiers, Cedric de Pierrepont and Alain Bertoncello, members of the elite Hubert squad of the French navy’s special forces who carried out the raid.
The rescue operation came after security forces tracked the kidnappers across the semi-desert expanses of Burkina Faso to a camp on the border with Mali.
Officials feared the hostages were about to be handed over to the Macina Liberation Front (FLM), a jihadist group formed in 2015 that is aligned with Al-Qaeda in the region, which would have greatly reduced the chances of a rescue.
“Macron’s decision to meet the hostages goes hand in hand with his decision to honour the soldiers,” the Elysee official told AFP.
“Macron is president of all French citizens, even those who do reckless acts,” he said.
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Saturday Picque and Lassimouillas, who were seized on May 1, were in an area of Benin that France has long advised travellers to avoid.
“The zone where our two citizens were has for some time now been considered a red zone, which means it’s a zone where you shouldn’t go, where you’re taking significant risks if you do go,” Le Drian told Europe 1 radio.
The foreign ministry’s travel advisory website lists the areas of northern Benin near the border with Burkina Faso as “Formally Discouraged,” including the areas of Pendjari National Park where the two men were visiting when they disappeared.
The disfigured body of their guide was found shortly after they were reported missing, along with their abandoned Toyota truck.
Le Drian’s revelations prompted some to criticise Macron’s decision to personally welcome the tourists on Saturday.
“The only fellow citizens who deserve the nation’s tribute today are our two heroes… who died in combat to save foolhardy tourists!” Hubert Falco, the mayor of Toulon in southern France where the Hubert commando is based, said on Twitter.
Although Benin has long been spared the unrest seen in Mali and Burkina Faso, French officials have warned for months that jihadist insurgents could extend their operations into the sparsely populated desert regions further south.
“The threat is evolving and has become much more mobile, and now countries to the south of Mali have become targets,” Le Drian said Saturday.
“The greatest precautions must be taken in these regions to avoid these types of kidnappings, and avoid the sacrifices required by our soldiers,” he said.
France’s Operation Barkhane counts some 4,500 troops deployed in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad to help local forces battle jihadist groups.
The raid on the kidnappers was led by the elite Hubert commando unit of the French naval special forces, which was deployed to the Sahel at the end of March.
They were assisted by Burkina and Benin authorities and by the United States, which provided intelligence and support.
A total of 24 French soldiers have died in the region since 2013 when France intervened to drive back jihadist groups who had taken control of northern Mali.