MOGADISHU, Somalia — Held captive since last fall, an ailing American woman and a Danish man are safely on their way home after a bold, dark-of-night rescue by U.S. Navy SEALs. The commandos slipped into a Somali encampment, shot and killed nine captors and whisked the hostages to freedom.
The raid’s success was welcome news for the hostages and their families, for the military and for President Barack Obama, who was delivering his State of the Union speech as the mission was wrapping up Tuesday night. He did not mention it in his address but dropped a hint upon arriving in the House chamber by telling Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, “Good job tonight.”
It was the second splashy SEAL Team 6 success in less than a year, following last May’s killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
The SEALs apparently encountered some degree of resistance from the kidnappers at the encampment. One U.S. official said Wednesday that there was a firefight but the length and extent of the battle were unclear.
Pentagon spokesmen said they could not confirm a gun battle, although one defense official said it was likely that the SEALs killed the kidnappers rather than capture them because they encountered armed resistance or the threat of resistance.
The Pentagon was mostly tight-lipped about details on Wednesday, citing a need to preserve the secrecy that can give SEALs and other special operations forces an edge against the terrorists, criminals and others they are ordered to kill or capture around the world under hazardous and often hostile conditions.
Special operations forces, trained for clandestine, small-team missions, have become a more prominent tool in the military’s kit since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The Obama administration is expected to announce on Thursday that it will invest even more heavily in that capability in coming years.
After planning and rehearsal, the Somalia rescue was carried out by SEAL Team 6, officially known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a secret mission. The same outfit did the bin Laden mission, the biggest counter-terror success of Obama’s presidency. It was not clear whether any team members participated in both operations.
One official said the SEALs parachuted from U.S. Air Force aircraft before moving on foot, apparently undetected, to the outdoor encampment where they found American Jessica Buchanan, 32, and Poul Hagen Thisted, a 60-year-old Dane, who had been kidnapped in Somalia last fall. The raid happened near the town of Adado.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said the captors were heavily armed and had “explosives nearby” when the rescuers arrived on the scene, but he was not more specific. He declined to say whether there was an exchange of gunfire and would not provide any further details about how the rescue was completed beyond saying all of the captors were killed by the Americans.
The American raiders caught the kidnappers as they were sleeping after having chewed the narcotic leaf qat for much of the evening, a pirate who gave his name as Bile Hussein told The Associated Press by phone. Hussein said he was not present at the site but had spoken with other pirates who were, and that they told him nine pirates had been killed in the raid and three were “taken away .”
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. John Kirby, said U.S. officials could not confirm that the kidnappers were engaged in piracy. He referred to them simply as “criminals.”
Little said the decision to go ahead with the rescue was prompted in part by rising concern about the medical condition of Buchanan. He said he could not be specific without violating her privacy but did say U.S. officials had reason to believe her condition could be life-threatening. Mary Ann Olsen, an official with the Danish Refugee Council, which employed Buchanan and Thisted in de-mining efforts in Somalia, said Buchanan was “not that ill” but needed medicine.
Danish Foreign Minister Villy Soevndal told Denmark’s TV2 channel, “One of the hostages has a disease that was very serious and that had to be solved.” Soevndal did not provide any more details.
U.S. officials “within the last week or so” had collected enough information to “connect the dots” that led Obama to authorize the mission on Monday, Little said.
A Western official said the rescuers and the freed hostages flew by helicopter to Camp Lemonnier in the nearby Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the information had not been released publicly. Panetta visited Camp Lemonnier just over a month ago. A key U.S. ally in this region, Djibouti hosts the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, a U.S.-led group organized under U.S. Africa Command.
In a statement after the rescue, Africa Command said Buchanan and Thisted were being held for an undisclosed ransom. It said the rescue team managed to confirm the hostages’ presence in the camp before launching the assault. The mission was directed by Army Gen. Carter Ham, head of Africa Command, from his headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. Panetta and other members of Obama’s national security team monitored the mission from the White House before traveling up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol for the president’s annual message to Congress and the nation.
Obama, Panetta and Ham all praised the skill and courage of the SEALs and expressed gratitude for the safe return of the hostages.
“We should remember that Mrs. Buchanan and Mr. Thisted were working to protect the people of Somalia when they were violently kidnapped,” Ham said in a written statement. “It is my hope that all those who work in Somalia for the betterment of the Somali people can be free from the dangers of violent criminals.”
The Danish Refugee Council confirmed that Buchanan and Thisted were “on their way to be reunited with their families” on Wednesday.
Minutes after Obama completed his State of the Union address he was on the phone with Buchanan’s father to tell him his daughter was safe.
“As commander in chief, I could not be prouder of the troops who carried out this mission and the dedicated professionals who supported their efforts,” Obama said in a statement released by the White House on Wednesday.
“The United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people and will spare no effort to secure the safety of our citizens and to bring their captors to justice.”
The Danish Refugee Council had been trying to work with Somali elders to win the hostages’ freedom but had found little success. The head of the council, Andreas Kamm, said he would have preferred to see the two hostages freed peacefully “but we’re happy with the outcome. This is a day of joy indeed.”
Buchanan lived in neighboring Kenya before Somalia, and worked at a school in Nairobi called the Rosslyn Academy from 2007-09, said Rob Beyer, the dean of students. He described the American as quick to laugh and adventurous.
“There have been tears on and around the campus today,” Beyer said. “She was well-loved by all her students.”
Several hostages are still being held in Somalia, including a British tourist, two Spanish doctors seized from neighboring Kenya and an American journalist kidnapped on Saturday.
Associated Press writers Kimberly Dozier and Julie Pace in Washington, Jason Straziuso in Nairobi, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Patrick Walters in Philadelphia contributed to this report.