WASHINGTON — American commandos dropped into Somalia on Tuesday night to rescue two aid workers who were held hostage, including an American, the Pentagon announced Wednesday.
The news of the raid came hours after President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech Tuesday night. While Obama made no mention of the rescue mission, he was seen telling Defense Secretary Leon Panetta before the speech, "Good job tonight."
Members of Navy SEAL Team 6 — the team that led the operation last May that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan — were part of the mission, Pentagon officials said. Arriving by helicopter, the special forces troops killed nine Somali kidnappers. They then rescued the American woman and Danish man whom the Somalis had been holding since October.
The hostages, Jessica Buchanan, 32, and Poul Hagen Thisted, 60, were working for the Danish Demining Group, which clears land mines and unexploded munitions in conflict zones. Two truckloads of gunmen kidnapped them as they were en route to an airport in the central Somalia town of Galkayo on Oct. 25, the U.S. military said.
Pentagon officials said they thought the hostages had been held as part of a growing problem in Somalia of kidnapping for profit, not as an act of terrorism. Somalia is also home to a violent Islamist insurgent group, al Shabab, but U.S. officials said that group wasn't involved in the kidnapping.
Although the kidnappers were widely described as Somali pirates, the Defense Department referred to them as "criminal suspects."
"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," Obama said in a statement. "This is yet another message to the world that the United States of America will stand strongly against any threats to our people.”
Last week, U.S. officials learned that Buchanan faced health issues, heightening urgency for a rescue mission.
“We wanted to act,” Vice President Joe Biden told NBC News.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that Obama decided to launch the raid at about 9 p.m. Monday after a briefing from his counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan. The president received updates throughout the day Tuesday and was told at 6:43 p.m. — about two hours before he was to give the State of the Union message — that the hostages were "safe and in U.S. hands," Carney said.
No Americans were harmed during the operation, the U.S. military said.
The news prompted Obama to congratulate Panetta as the president entered the House of Representatives chamber to deliver his speech Tuesday night, Pentagon spokesman George Little said. That drew a broad grin from Panetta.
After the speech, the president called Buchanan’s father.
“Thanks to the extraordinary courage and capabilities of our special operations forces, yesterday Jessica Buchanan was rescued and she is on her way home," Obama said in the statement. "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."
Somalia has been without a functioning government for more than 20 years, and the central region, where Buchanan and Thisted were abducted, is a notorious haven for pirates and criminal gangs that have operated with impunity for years. The groups routinely target foreign aid workers and vessels for capture and reportedly earn millions in ransoms for their safe release.
"This is not a new problem, unfortunately, which is why we have to be vigilant and have to be prepared to do the kinds of operations like we saw last night," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
The Danish Demining Group, a unit of the Danish Refugee Council, is one of the few international aid agencies operating amid Somalia's violence and lawlessness. In a statement on its website, the group, which has worked in Somalia since 1998, said that Buchanan and Thisted were "unharmed and at a safe location."
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