Wednesday, January 25, 2012

U.S. commandos free two hostages in daring Somalia raid

(Reuters) - U.S. special forces swooped into Somalia on Wednesday and rescued an American and a Dane after a killing their nine kidnappers, in a rare raid into the Horn of Africa nation to free foreign captives.

American Jessica Buchanan, 32, and Poul Hagen Thisted, 60, of Denmark, humanitarian aid workers for a demining group, had been kidnapped from the town of Galkayo in the semi-autonomous Galmudug region in October.

"This is yet another message to the world that the United States of America will stand strongly against any threats to our people," U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement.

The rescue team included forces hailing from the same elite Navy SEAL unit that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden last year in a raid on his compound in Pakistan, a U.S. official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But other services also formed part of the assault team, and it was not clear that any of the same SEALs were involved in both raids even if they came from the same unit, known as SEAL Team Six.

"All nine captors were killed during the assault," the U.S. military's Germany-based Africa Command said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta confirmed no American soldiers were killed in the operation.

Buchanan and Thisted were flown to neighboring Djibouti, home to the only U.S. military base in Africa and France's largest base on the continent, another U.S. official said on condition of anonymity. They were under the care of U.S. military doctors, officials said.

The Pentagon appeared to dismiss any known links by the kidnappers to Islamic militant groups and spokesman Captain John Kirby said the U.S. military did not have any firm indication they were connected to piracy.

Still, locals did describe the kidnappers as pirates.

Somali pirate gangs typically seize ships in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden and hold the crews until they receive a ransom. The kidnapping of the aid workers in Galkayo would be an unusual case of a pirate gang being behind a seizure on land.

U.S. and French forces have intervened to rescue pirate hostages at sea, but attacks on pirate bases are rare.

Danish Foreign Minister Villy Sovndal earlier said the poor health of one hostage had led the United States to take action.

People involved with the hostages had said earlier this month Buchanan was suffering from a possible kidney infection. Pentagon officials, who would not elaborate on her condition, said the sense of urgency about her health had increased over the past two weeks.

"About 12 U.S. helicopters are now at Galkayo. We thank the United States. Pirates have spoilt the whole region's peace and ethics. They are mafia," Mohamed Ahmed Alim, leader of the Galmudug region, told Reuters.

He was speaking from Hobyo, a pirate base north of Haradheere, where he said he was negotiating the release of an American journalist seized on Saturday, also from Galkayo.


Pirates and local elders say the American journalist and a number of sailors from India, South Korea, the Philippines and Denmark are being held by pirate gangs.

A British tourist kidnapped from Kenya on September 11, 2011 is also still held captive in Somalia.

The raiding party arrived prepared to detain the kidnappers but was not able to do that and all nine were killed, Pentagon officials said. The kidnappers were heavily armed and had explosives nearby, said the officials.

Obama was overheard congratulating Panetta on the success of the operation as the president entered the U.S. House of Representatives chamber on Tuesday for his annual State of the Union speech.

Panetta had been at the White House, where he had monitored the progress of the operation, before the speech. The raid was still being wrapped up when the president spoke to him.

"Leon. Good job tonight. Good job tonight," said Obama.

Obama authorized the raid on Monday and military commanders gave the final go-ahead on Tuesday, Pentagon officials said. They said a confluence of factors, from the health of the hostages to the available intelligence, prompted Washington to move ahead with the raid.

"We're confident that there was enough of a sense of urgency, there was enough actionable intelligence to take the action that we did, for the president to make the decision that he did," said Navy Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.

Panetta visited U.S. troops in Djibouti last month on his way to Afghanistan and Iraq, in a stopover that reflected Obama's growing focus on the militant and piracy threats from Yemen and the eastern edge of Africa.

In Djibouti, the United States has a platform to monitor al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen and Somalia's al Shabaab, a hardline rebel group with links to al Qaeda.

Somalia's government applauded the mission and said it welcomed any operation against pirates.

U.S. special forces killed senior al Qaeda militant Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in a raid in southern Somalia in 2009. Several other al Qaeda or al Shabaab officials have been killed in U.S. drone strikes in Somalia over the past few years.

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