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article imageGrief, questions as France remembers troops slain in hostage raid

By Stuart WILLIAMS (AFP)     May 13, 2019 in World

A grieving France paid its respects Tuesday to two commandos killed during a raid to rescue four hostages in the Sahel region of Africa last week, under the shadow of a row over risks taken by two of those freed.

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

Crowds joined soldiers, firefighters and veterans in lining the bridge leading up to the imposing 17th-century landmark as the motorcade carrying their coffins made its solemn procession through a sun-lit Paris.

"France is a country that does not abandon its children, no matter the circumstances," a visibly emotional Macron said in his speech during a 45-minute ceremony attended by tearful family members and masked fellow special forces.

Relatives of French soldiers Cedric de Pierrepont and Alain Bertoncello  who were killed in a raid t...
Relatives of French soldiers Cedric de Pierrepont and Alain Bertoncello, who were killed in a raid to free hostages in Burkina Faso last week, at the Invalides in Paris on Tuesday

"Those who attack French citizens should know that our country will never give way and that they will always encounter our army, our elite troops and our allies," he added.

- 'Warning to tourists' -

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

A US citizen and South Korean tourist -- both women whose presence was a total surprise to the French forces -- were also sprung from captivity in the operation overnight on Thursday-Friday.

The kidnapping has shone a spotlight on rising instability in the vast Sahel region that lies south of the Sahara desert, where Islamist groups aligned to Al-Qaeda and Islamic State have been gathering in strength.

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

The funeral procession of Cedric de Pierrepont (L) and Alain Bertoncello will roll over the Alexande...
The funeral procession of Cedric de Pierrepont (L) and Alain Bertoncello will roll over the Alexander III bridge in central Paris where ordinary French citizens have been invited to pay their respects

Leading French daily Le Figaro in an editorial Monday said 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.

On Saturday, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian reprimanded the freed men, aged 51 and 46, for taking "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 criticised Macron meanwhile for meeting the tourists at the plane that brought them back.

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

- 'Fulfilled their destiny' -

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.

French special forces free 4 hostages in Burkina Faso
French special forces free 4 hostages in Burkina Faso

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

But Macron insisted that the men's lives had not been sacrificed.

"A life that is halted, even in full youth, is not a life that is lost," he said. "Someone who dies in combat, fulfilling their duty, has not just fulfilled their duty but their destiny."

He decorated both men posthumously as members of Legion d'honneur, France's highest honour.

France's special forces units were in attendance for their fallen brothers in arms on Tuesday, prompting warnings to broadcasters not to show any faces that could jeopardise their safety.

The hostages were snatched, and their local guide killed, by an armed group while visiting the Pendjari National Park in Benin which borders Burkina Faso.

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 jihadist groups who had taken control of northern Mali.

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

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