PARIS (AP) — French special forces backed by helicopters led a pre-dawn operation in northern Mail Thursday and freed five humanitarian aid workers who had been held captive by a "terrorist group" — killing about 10 of the alleged militants, officials said.
Working off intelligence tips, the French forces intercepted two pickup trucks carrying the hostage-takers and their captives north of the historic city of Timbuktu, one of three major towns in a vast region on the Sahara's southern rim where the five went missing Feb. 8, said Col. Gilles Jaron, a French military spokesman.
In a joint statement earlier Thursday, the presidents of France and Mali said the five Malian aid workers — including four with the International Committee for the Red Cross —were in good health. Jaron said that two of the aid workers had sustained minor injuries.
Valery Mbaoh Nana, a spokesman for the Red Cross in Mali, told The Associated Press: "They are with us in Gao," referring to northern Mali's largest town. "We don't know who had held them until now."
Jaron declined comment about the suspected identity of the hostage-takers, and declined to indicate the source of the intelligence. The presidential statement didn't identify the "terrorist group" responsible. But remnants of al-Qaida's north Africa branch — largely purged from northern Mali last year by French forces — remain active in the area.
Remi Libessart, a spokesman for the continuing French operation in Mali, said: "We don't know exactly which groups they (the hostages) were with. It's always complicated because these terrorists change groups all the time."
In the operation, French special forces first fired warning shots and came under return fire, Jaron said.
"We neutralized a terrorist group of about 10 people," he said, adding that an analysis of the operation was ongoing. "Whenever you free hostages, it's always a success."
Baba Ahmed contributed from Bamako, Mali.