ADEN: An American and a South African were killed Saturday as US forces tried to free hostages from Al-Qaeda in Yemen, with President Barack Obama accusing the militants of “barbaric murder.”
Obama said he authorised the joint operation involving US and Yemeni special forces to rescue American photojournalist Luke Somers because his life was believed to be “in imminent danger”.
South African teacher Pierre Korkie was also killed, just a day before he was to be freed after more than a year in captivity, said the charity that had negotiated his release.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)threatened in a video Thursday to execute Somers, 33, kidnapped 15 months ago in Sanaa. It gave Washington three days to meet unspecified demands.
A senior US defence official said there were “good indications” Al-Qaeda had moved the deadline up and “were preparing to kill him, on what would have been Saturday morning our time, which is why we moved as fast as we could.”
“It was either act now and take the risk, or let that deadline pass. And no one was willing to do that.”
Commandos were dropped by helicopter in the dead of night 10 kilometres (six miles) from where the hostages were being held in the southeastern province of Shabwa, the official said.
They made their way to the Al-Qaeda hideout by foot, but were discovered about 100 meters (yards) away.
“When the element of surprise was lost, and a firefight ensued, we believe that is when (the hostages) were shot.”
One of them — it is not clear who — died en route to a naval ship, the USS Makin Island, and the other on the operating table aboard the vessel.
Yemen said 10 militants were killed in the fighting and four of its own men wounded.
In May 2013, Al-Qaeda seized Korkie and his wife Yolande, who was released in January. The couple had worked as teachers in Yemen for four years.
The Gift of Givers charity said logistical arrangements had already been put in place to fly Korkie, 57, out of Yemen Sunday.
“The psychological and emotional devastation to Yolande and her family will be compounded by the knowledge that Pierre was to be released by Al-Qaeda tomorrow,” it said.
“It is even more tragic that the words we used in a conversation with Yolande at 5:59 this morning was ‘the wait is almost over.'”
“Three days ago we told her ‘Pierre will be home for Christmas.” We certainly did not mean it in the manner it has unfolded.”
Imtiaz Sooliman, head of the charity, said he had anticipated on Friday that the Americans, under family pressure, were going to act and that he feared Korkie would die in the operation.
“No one can be blamed for that; it is a hostage-taking, a crisis situation and each one works for his interests,” he said.
A US State Department official said “we assessed that there were two hostages at this location,” including Somers. “We did not know who the second hostage was.”
Obama said that since Somers was abducted, Washington had been using “every tool at our disposal” to try to secure his release.
“Luke was a photojournalist who sought through his images to convey the lives of Yemenis to the outside world,” Obama added.
“He came to Yemen in peace and was held against his will and threatened by a despicable terrorist organisation.”
“The callous disregard for Luke’s life is more proof of the depths of AQAP’s depravity,” Obama said.
British-born Somers had worked as a freelance photographer for the BBC and spent time at local newspapers, including the Yemen Times before he was snatched off Sanaa’s streets.
He appeared in the Al-Qaeda video appealing for help.
“I am looking for any help that can get me out of this situation. I am certain that my life is in danger,” he said.
“As I sit here now I ask if anything can be done, please let it be done,” he said, appearing composed.
The United States has said American and Yemeni forces already tried unsuccessfully to rescue Somers last month.
Yemen’s defence ministry said Al-Qaeda moved hostages, including Somers, a Briton and a South African, days before.
The Briton’s whereabouts remain unknown.
The United States has a long-standing policy of not negotiating with hostage-takers or paying ransoms. Obama has recently ordered a review of policy.
Washington considers AQAP to be Al-Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate.
Yemen is a key ally in the fight against Al-Qaeda, allowing Washington to conduct a long-standing drone war against the group on its territory.
AQAP’s threat followed the murder since August of five Western hostages by the Islamic State jihadist group, which controls parts of Syria and Iraq.