Al Qaeda kills hostages as rescue bid fails

US troops led raid to save photographer and South African teacher – whose wife had been told he would soon be free.
Luke Somers, a 33-year-old British born US journalist, in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on July 15, 2013, a few months before he was kidnapped by Al Qaeda. EPA
Luke Somers, a 33-year-old British born US journalist, in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on July 15, 2013, a few months before he was kidnapped by Al Qaeda. EPA

SANAA // An American photojournalist and a South African teacher held by Al Qaeda militants in Yemen were killed during a US-led rescue attempt on Saturday.

The US president Barack Obama said he ordered the raid because of the “imminent danger” to Luke Somers.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on Thursday posted a video online threatening to kill Somers, 33, within three days, prompting a second rescue attempt for him by American forces backed by Yemeni ground troops.

The South African, Pierre Korkie, was to be freed on Sunday, according to an aid group helping to negotiate his release. His wife had been told on Saturday morning that “the wait is almost over”.

A senior Obama administration official said the militants tried to kill Somers just before the raid, wounding him. US commandos took Somers to a navy ship in the region where he died, the official said.

Mr Obama did not comment on Korkie’s death, only saying he had “authorised the rescue of any other hostages held in the same location as Luke”.

Information “indicated that Luke’s life was in imminent danger”, Mr Obama said. “Based on this assessment, and as soon as there was reliable intelligence and an operational plan, I authorised a rescue attempt.”

Yemen’s national security chief, Major General Ali Al Ahmadi, said the militants planned to kill Somers on Saturday, prompting the joint mission.

“Al Qaeda promised to conduct the execution today so there was an attempt to save them but unfortunately they shot the hostage before or during the attack,” Maj Gen Al Ahmadi said. “He was freed but unfortunately he was dead.”

The operation began before dawn in southern Shabwa province, a stronghold of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap), the country’s local branch of the terror group. US drones struck the Wadi Abdan area first, followed by strafing runs by jets and Yemeni ground forces moving in, a Yemeni security official said.

Helicopters also flew in more forces to raid the house where the two men were held, he said.

At least nine militants were killed in an initial drone strike, another security official said.

Both Somers and Korkie “were murdered by the Aqap terrorists during the course of the operation,” the US secretary of defence Chuck Hagel said.

The operation was the second failed rescue by US and Yemeni forces looking for Somers, one of about a dozen hostages believed held by Aqap. Eight captives – including Yemenis, a Saudi and an Ethiopian were freed in a raid on an Aqap safe haven in a desert region near the Saudi border on November 25. However, Somers, a Briton and four others had been moved days earlier, officials said later.

In the video released on Thursday, Aqap threatened to kill him in three days if the United States did not meet the group’s unspecified demands or if another rescue was attempted.

Somers was kidnapped in September 2013 as he left a supermarket in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, said Fakhri Al Arashi, chief editor of the National Yemen, where Somers worked as a copy editor and a freelance photographer during the 2011 uprising in Yemen.

Korkie was kidnapped in the Yemeni city of Taiz in May 2013, along with his wife Yolande. Militants later released his wife after a non-governmental group, Gift of the Givers, helped negotiate for her freedom. People close to Korkie said Aqap demanded a $3 million (Dh11m) ransom for his release.

“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,” Gift of Givers said in a statement Saturday.

“A team of Abyan leaders met in Aden this morning and were preparing the final security and logistical arrangements, related to hostage release mechanisms, to bring Pierre to safety and freedom. 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.”’

Lucy Somers, the photojournalist’s sister, said she and her father learnt of her brother’s death from FBI agents.

“We ask that all of Luke’s family members be allowed to mourn in peace,” she said, speaking from Kent, England.

Somers, who was born in Britain, earned a bachelor’s degree in creative writing while attending Beloit College in Wisconsin from 2004 through 2007.

Fuad Al Kadas, who called Somers one of his best friends, said Somers spent time in Egypt before finding work in Yemen. Somers started teaching English at a Yemen school but quickly established himself as a one of the few foreign photographers in the country, he said.

“He is a great man with a kind heart who really loves the Yemeni people and the country,” Al Kadas wrote in an email from Yemen.

“He was so dedicated in trying to help change Yemen’s future, to do good things for the people that he didn’t leave the country his entire time here,” Mr Al Kadas said.

Al Arashi, his editor at the National Yemen, recalled a moment when Somers edited a story on other hostages held in the country.

“He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t want to be a hostage,’” Al Arashi said. “‘I don’t want to be kidnapped.”’

* Associated Press

Published: December 6, 2014 04:00 AM

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