Hostages Luke Somers and Pierre Korkie killed during rescue attempt in Yemen
U.S. acted on fears American was in immediate danger; Obama condemns 'barbaric murder'
An American photojournalist and a South African teacher held by al-Qaeda militants in Yemen were killed Saturday during a U.S.-led rescue operation that President Barack Obama said he ordered because of "imminent danger" to the American hostage.
U.S. officials believe the militants shot the two men — journalist Luke Somers and teacher Pierre Korkie — during a firefight. Both were said to be alive when American forces pulled them from a building in the militant group's compound and put them on aircraft, where medical teams operated on them during a short flight to a U.S. navy ship in the region.
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Korkie is believed to have died during the flight, while Somers died on the ship, according to senior U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the information had yet to be approved for release.
About 40 U.S. special operations forces were part of the mission, according to the U.S. officials. The rescuers, backed by Yemeni ground forces, got within 100 metres of the compound in southern Shabwa province when they were spotted by the militants, and the skirmish ensued.
Yemen's highest security body, the Supreme Security Committee, issued a rare statement acknowledging that the country's forces had carried out the raid with "American friends." The committee said all the militants who were holding the hostages were killed in the operation.
Yemen's national security chief, Maj. Gen. Ali al-Ahmadi, said the militants planned to kill Somers on Saturday, and that prompted the joint mission.
"Al-Qaeda promised to conduct the execution today, so there was an attempt to save them. But unfortunately they shot the hostage before or during the attack," al-Ahmadi said at a conference in Manama, Bahrain.
Group issued video threat
The second rescue attempt in less than two weeks to free Somers was prompted by a video posted online earlier in the week in which al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula threatened to kill Somers within 72 hours.
But an aid group helping negotiate Korkie's release said he was to be freed Sunday and his wife was told that "the wait is almost over."
Obama condemned the "barbaric murder" of the two men in a statement on Saturday.
"I offer my deepest condolences to Luke's family and to his loved ones," read the statement.
"As this and previous hostage rescue operations demonstrate, the United States will spare no effort to use all of its military, intelligence and diplomatic capabilities to bring Americans home safely, wherever they are located."
Obama said he authorized the raid on Friday to rescue Somers and other hostages held in the same location, because information "indicated that Luke's life was in imminent danger." He said the U.S. had used every tool at its disposal to secure Somers's release since his capture 15 months ago.
The South African government did not immediately comment on Korkie's death.
Drones used in attack
The operation began before dawn Saturday in a province that is a stronghold of al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen. U.S. drones struck the area first, followed by strafing runs by jets before Yemeni ground forces moved in, a Yemeni security official said. Helicopters flew in more forces to raid the house where the two men were held, he said.
At least nine al-Qaeda militants were killed in an initial drone strike, another security official said. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
U.S. officials said no American forces were killed or injured. The U.S. military team was on the ground for about 30 minutes. Officials also said that based on the location of the compound where Somers and Korkie were found, there was no possibility that the hostages were killed by American fire.
In an earlier attempt to rescue Somers, on Nov. 25, American special operations forces and Yemeni soldiers raided a remote al-Qaeda safe haven in a desert region near the Saudi border, freeing eight captives, including Yemenis, a Saudi and an Ethiopian. Somers and five others had been moved days earlier, officials later said.
No news on 3 other hostages
Al-Qaeda militants in Yemen are believed to currently have a dozen foreigners as hostages. There was no new information Saturday about three other hostages — the Briton, a Turk and a Yemeni — who had previously been held alongside Somers and Korkie, a Yemeni security official told Reuters.
Somers was kidnapped in September 2013 as he left a supermarket in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, said Fakhri al-Arashi, chief editor of the National Yemen, where Somers worked as a copy editor and a freelance photographer during the 2011 uprising in Yemen.
Korkie was abducted in May 2013 along with his wife Yolande, who was released in January.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is seen by Washington as one of al-Qaeda's most dangerous branches, and has a strong presence in large parts of southern and eastern Yemen. The U.S. has worked with the Yemeni government and via drone strikes to attack its leadership.
With files from Reuters