U.S. special forces stormed a walled compound in a remote Yemeni village early on Saturday in an attempt to free Western hostages held by an al Qaeda unit, but an American journalist and a South African teacher were killed by their captors, officials said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and a Yemeni intelligence official said Luke Somers, 33, and South African Pierre Korkie, 56, were shot by their kidnappers shortly after the raid began in the arid Wadi Abadan district of Shabwa, a province long seen as one of al Qaeda’s most formidable strongholds.
It was the second U.S. attempt to free Somers in 10 days and Kerry said it had been approved because of information that Somers’ life was in imminent danger. “It was our assessment that that clock would run out on Saturday,” one U.S. official said.
However, the Gift of the Givers relief group, which was trying to secure Korkie’s release, said it had negotiated for the teacher to be freed and had expected that to happen on Sunday and for him to be returned to his family.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is seen by Washington as one of al Qaeda’s most dangerous branches. The United States has worked with Yemen’s government and via drone strikes to attack its leaders in southern and eastern Yemen.
“The callous disregard for Luke’s life is more proof of the depths of AQAP’s depravity, and further reason why the world must never cease in seeking to defeat their evil ideology,” President Barack Obama said in a statement.
Obama said he had authorised the operation and said the United States would “spare no effort to use all of its military, intelligence and diplomatic capabilities to bring Americans home safely, wherever they are located.”
A U.S. defense official said about 40 U.S. special forces troops, flown in by tilt-rotor CV-22 Osprey aircraft, had advanced to within 100 meters (yards) of the walled compound where the hostages were held before the defenders were alerted and a firefight started.
About 10 people, including al Qaeda guards and some civilians were killed in the fighting, said Ali al-Ahmadi, chief of Yemen’s national security bureau. The Pentagon said it was unaware of any civilian casualties.
U.S. officials said they knew Somers was at the location, partly because of information gleaned during the earlier rescue attempt, and they were aware that a second hostage was there but did not know in advance who it was.
As the fight began, an al Qaeda guard darted inside the compound and then exited through the back. Gunfire was heard. That’s when American officials believe Somers and Korkie were shot.
They were each shot several times, said the U.S. officials, who declined to be identified. The men were treated by medics but one died during the flight out and another aboard a U.S. ship. No U.S. troops were hurt, they said. The raid lasted about 30 minutes.
Gift of the Givers said on its website: “We received with sadness the news that Pierre was killed in an attempt by American Special Forces, in the early hours of this morning, to free hostages in Yemen.”
It added: “The psychological and emotional devastation to (Korkie’s wife) Yolande and her family will be compounded by the knowledge that Pierre was to be released by al Qaeda tomorrow … Three days ago we told her ‘Pierre will be home for Christmas’.”
Yolande, who was kidnapped with her husband in mid-2013, was released in January after intervention by Gift of the Givers.
A South African government spokesman declined to comment.
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Mohammed Ghobari and Mohammed Mukhashaf