Somalia: Western hostages freed in US military raid

Halkaan ka akhri

Two foreign aid workers kidnapped in Somalia three months ago have been freed in a US military raid.

US officials have confirmed that elite US Navy Seals were dropped into Somalia to carry out the overnight operation, which resulted in a shoot-out.

Vice-President Joe Biden told ABC News that the mission had been approved because of the failing health of one of the aid workers.

The hostages – a US woman and a Danish man – were seized on 25 October.

American Jessica Buchanan, 32, and Dane Poul Thisted, 60, were freed uninjured, although nine of their captors are said to have been killed. No casualties have been reported among US forces.

Health concerns

Danish Foreign Minister Villy Soevndal told Denmark’s TV2 channel that one of the hostages “has a disease that was very serious and that had to be solved”.

“Jessica’s health was failing,” Mr Biden said, referring to Ms Buchanan. “They concluded they should go at this time. The president gave the go.”

BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner says Wednesday’s rescue is the highest profile US action in Somalia since it pulled its forces out of the country in 1994.

A Pentagon official has confirmed to the BBC that the unit involved was the elite Seal Team Six, which killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan last May, although the same personnel were not necessarily involved.

Seal Team Six suffered heavy losses last August in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan which killed 38 people.

US officials said the Somali kidnappers were “criminals” rather than Islamist al-Shabab militants.

More than 150 people are still being held hostage in Somalia – mostly sailors from ships seized for ransom by pirates.

They include a UK tourist, two Spanish medics and a Kenyan driver who were abducted in neighbouring Kenya.

Kenya blames al-Shabab for those kidnappings, but the group denies any involvement.

In recent months, the US has stepped up drone and naval attacks in Somalia, where the al-Qaeda-linked Islamist group controls much of the south and central regions.

A US special operations team killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, one of the most senior leaders of al-Qaeda’s East Africa cell, inside Somalia in 2009.

‘Chewing qat’

At the time of the raid, American Jessica Buchanan, 32, and Dane Poul Thisted, 60, were being kept about 40km (25 miles) east of the town of Adado and 100km south of Galkayo.

A US official said the Seals parachuted from a plane into an area near the compound where they were being held.

The kidnappers had been chewing a narcotic leaf known as “qat” and were sleeping when the Seal team arrived, self-described pirate Bile Hussein told the Associated Press news agency.

He added that nine kidnappers were killed and three were “taken away”.

US officials say shots were fired as the team approached the compound, but there were no American casualties.

The rescue team was on the ground for about an hour and the raid was over by 03:00 (00:00 GMT).

The freed hostages and the Seals left the area by helicopter for the nearby tiny Horn of Africa state of Djibouti, where the US has a military presence.

They were taken to Camp Lemonnier – where about 2,500 personnel are based as well as armour, fighters and drones.

The two had been working for the Danish Demining Group, part of the Danish Refugee Council, when they were abducted by gunmen near the north-central town of Galkayo.

The family of Ms Buchanan said her rescue was “an unbelievable answer to prayers”, and her brother, Stephen Buchanan said: “It is a great day to be an American. We are very proud and very thankful to Seal Team Six.”

‘Message to world’

Jessica Buchanan attended Valley Forge Christian College in Pennsylvania, graduating in 2006.

During and after college, Ms Buchanan taught a school in Nairobi, Kenya, where she “fell in love with Africa”, Valley Forge’s president Rev Don Meyer told the Associated Press.

She moved to Somalia in 2009 with her Danish husband, Erik Landemalm, an aid worker whom she met in Africa, according to ABC News.

According to her LinkedIn profile, Ms Buchanan is a regional education adviser with the demining group.

Correspondents say that since the 1993 killing in Mogadishu of 19 US soldiers and the wounding of 70 others, there has been no appetite for full-scale US ground operations in Somalia.

The country has been wracked by two decades of conflict and lawlessness, and has not had a functioning central government since 1991.

The current UN-backed interim government controls the capital, Mogadishu, thanks to the efforts of a 12,000-strong African Union force.

In a statement, US President Barack Obama said he had personally authorised the mission on Monday and that it constituted “another message to the world that the United States of America will stand strongly against any threats to our people”.

The BBC’s Steve Kingstone in Washington says the first hint of the successful operation appeared to come from President Obama himself.

As he prepared to give the State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, he turned to his Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and said: “Good job tonight.”

In his annual address, the US president praised the US Navy Seals team who killed al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in a raid in Pakistan in May 2011.

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