MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Somalia's al-Qaida-linked rebels said Wednesday that France signed the death warrant of a French intelligence agent when it launched a rescue operation last weekend that failed to bring him home.
The militant group al-Shabab has held the French agent, Denis Allex, since July 2009. Al-Shabab said in a lengthy statement Wednesday that the group decided to kill Allex in retaliation for the Friday-Saturday overnight operation. Two French soldiers and 17 Somalis were killed during the rescue attempt, French officials say.
France's defense minister has said Allex is likely already dead. Al-Shabab has said Allex was still alive after the rescue attempt.
Vague language from the Islamist extremists in Wednesday's statement does little to make things clear. Al-Shabab did not offer proof Allex is alive or say when he would be executed if he is still alive.
"With the rescue attempt, France has voluntarily signed Allex's death warrant," the statement said.
Adm. Edouard Guillaud, France's military chief of staff, said officials there believe al-Shabab's announcement is propaganda.
"We have had no indication since Friday night's raid that Denis Allex, since that's his name, on the fact that Denis Allex is alive," he told Europe 1. "We think that he is in all likelihood dead. ... It's a technique that they have already resorted to in other cases that didn't concern us."
Al-Shabab also said it had been willing to free Allex in exchange for "Muslim prisoners." It accused France of persecuting Muslims and pointed to a recently launched military operation by French forces against al-Qaida-linked extremists in Mali.
Transported by helicopters, the French commandos attacked the al-Shabab position early Saturday in an attempt to free Allex. France's defense minister has said the government decided to stage the rescue a month ago, when Allex's location seemed to have settled down "in a spot accessible by the sea." U.S. military aircraft briefly entered Somali airspace to support the rescue operation, President Barack Obama said Sunday, but did not use weapons.
Fierce fighting broke out after the French troops landed. French officials said they counted 17 dead among the Islamists.
Al-Shabab once controlled all of south-central Somali, including the capital, Mogadishu. African Union troops pushed al-Shabab out of the capital in 2011, but the Islamist rebels still control wide swaths of rural southern Somalia.
-- Straziuso reported from Johannesburg.