GAO/PARIS (Reuters) - French troops in Mali on Thursday freed five local aid workers kidnapped in February, the French and Malian governments said, killing about a dozen of their captors in the process.
Land and air forces were deployed in the rescue mission, which targeted the kidnappers' two pick-up trucks in the remote desert region north of Timbuktu, a spokesman at Central Command of French Armed Forces, Colonel Pascal Georgin said. About a dozen among the group of kidnappers were killed, he said.
Two of the aid workers were hit by bullets during the operation and were receiving medical care for minor injuries at a Gao military hospital, according to a Malian employee for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Four of the aid workers belonged to the organization and the employee named them as Filipe Diarra, Ousmane El Ansary, Youssouf Ag Rissa and Amikal Ag Handaka. The fifth was a volunteer for the same organization.
"We are relieved at this happy outcome for our team. For the families, who were immediately informed, it's the end of the ordeal," said Christoph Luedi, head of the Malian ICRC branch.
The group had been travelling on a remote road between Kidal and Gao on February 8 when their truck was seized.
It was not clear at the time who abducted the aid workers and a statement issued on Thursday by the French and Malian presidencies did not give any further details, beyond saying they had been captured by a "terrorist group".
France sent troops into its former colony in early 2013 to drive out al Qaeda-linked Islamic militants after they took control of the desert north.
Despite the presence of French and U.N. peacekeepers, small pockets of fighters continue to carry out sporadic attacks in the vast, landlocked country.
In an incident that underscored the ongoing security risks, two French radio journalists working in the northern city of Kidal were abducted and killed in November.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau and Maya Nikolaeva in Paris; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Toni Reinhold