© Ian Langsdon/European Pressphoto AgencyJean-Yves Le Drian, the French defense minister, at press conference in Paris on Saturday.
As French forces continued air and ground operations in support of the government of Mali, French special forces failed early Saturday in a hostage rescue mission in southern Somalia.

At least one French commando died in the raid along with 17 of the Shabab militiamen who were holding the hostage, whose fate is unclear, France's defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said.

Mr. Le Drian insisted that the rescue mission, on the eastern edge of the continent, far from Mali, was unconnected to French military action against Islamist radicals who were threatening to seize more of Mali, but Islamist groups holding up to eight French hostages in northern Africa have threatened to kill them if the French intervene militarily on the continent.

The Somalia operation was carried out by the D.G.S.E. intelligence agency to rescue one of its own, an agent using the name Denis Allex, who was taken hostage July 14, 2009, from a hotel in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. He was working as a security consultant to the transitional government in Somalia, the French said.

The rescue operation, using helicopters, was a significant one that met "very strong resistance," Mr. Le Drian said at a news conference. The fate of Mr. Allex is not clear. Mr. Le Drian said, speaking carefully, that "everything leads us to think that unfortunately Denis Allex was killed by his captors," but it was clear that the French did not recover Mr. Allex or his body.

Mr. Le Drian said that Mr. Allex was in the location raided, and that 17 Shabab fighters had been killed in the operation.

In a statement later Saturday, the Shabab movement said that Mr. Allex was still alive and was being held in a different place, and that they were holding an injured French soldier. It was not possible to confirm the statement. The militant group "will give its final verdict regarding the fate of Dennis Allex within two days," the group said in a statement in English linked to a post on its Twitter account on Saturday.

The movement also said that the raid was carried out at about 2 a.m. by five French helicopters in the southern Somali town of Bula-Marer and lasted about 45 minutes. "Instead of rescuing them, such ill-advised operations only further imperil the lives of the hostages," the statement said. French military officials would not confirm those details or the name of the town.

Mr. Le Drian said that a French commando had been wounded and later died and that a French soldier was missing; the French Defense Ministry had earlier issued a statement saying that two French soldiers had died. Mr. Le Drian also said that the rescue operation had been planned for some time and had been delayed by weather.

The Defense Ministry statement justified the raid, saying: "Faced with the intransigence of the terrorists, who refused to negotiate for three and half years and who were holding Denis Allex in inhumane conditions, an operation was planned and carried out." The statement also said that Mr. Allex was killed by his captors, but Mr. Le Drian was careful not to repeat that claim.

Mr. Le Drian also announced the death in the Mali fighting of a French helicopter pilot, Lt. Damien Boiteux. French airstrikes overnight drove back Islamic rebels from Konna, a key village in Mali, Mr. Le Drian said, and destroyed a militant command center, while attacking at least three different targets.

The rebels, who are said to have ties to various radical groups including offshoots of Al Qaeda, seized the largely desert region of northern Mali and have set up their own rule there in the last nine months. Their move toward the south prompted a call for French help on Thursday from the Mali government and the French military response on Friday, after France had repeatedly said that it would not get involved militarily except to aid African forces.

But the French tone changed quickly, and its intervention by air and ground troops found broad support in Africa and Western nations. "The threat is the establishment of a terrorist state within range of Europe and of France," Mr. Le Drian said.