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Witnesses in Bulo Marer said they had heard a helicopter above the southern town before explosions and gunfire.
Al-Shabab militants are believed to be holding a French person hostage.
An al-Shabab spokesman told AFP news agency "several" French soldiers had been killed, in a claim which could not be confirmed independently.
The reported operation in eastern Africa came hours after France announced the start of a military intervention in the west African state of Mali, to support the government there against Islamist militants.
It was not immediately clear if the two events were connected.
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