SANAA, Yemen (AP) — An American photojournalist and a South African teacher held by al-Qaida militants in Yemen were killed Saturday during a failed U.S.-led rescue attempt, a raid President Barack Obama said he ordered over an “imminent danger” to the reporter.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula previously posted a video online threatening to kill photographer Luke Somers, prompting a second rescue attempt for him by American forces backed by Yemeni ground troops. But an aid group helping negotiate the release of South African Pierre Korkie said he was to be freed Sunday and his wife was told only that morning: “The wait is almost over.”
In a statement, Obama did not address Korkie by name, only saying he “authorized the rescue of any other hostages held in the same location as Luke.” The South African government did not immediately comment on Korkie’s death.
Information “indicated that Luke’s life was in imminent danger,” Obama said. “Based on this assessment, and as soon as there was reliable intelligence and an operational plan, I authorized a rescue attempt.”
A senior Obama administration official later told The Associated Press that militants tried to kill Somers just before the raid, wounding him. U.S. commandos took Somers to a Navy ship in the region where he died, the official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as the information had yet to be approved for release.
Lucy Somers, the photojournalist’s sister, told the AP that she and her father learned of her 33-year-old brother’s death from FBI agents at 0500 GMT (12 a.m. EST) Saturday.
“We ask that all of Luke’s family members be allowed to mourn in peace,” she said from near London.
Yemen’s national security chief, Maj. Gen. Ali al-Ahmadi, said the militants planned to kill Luke Somers on Saturday, prompting the joint mission.
“Al-Qaida promised to conduct the execution (of Somers) today so there was an attempt to save them but unfortunately they shot the hostage before or during the attack,” al-Ahmadi said at a conference in Manama, Bahrain. “He was freed but unfortunately he was dead.”
The operation began before dawn Saturday in Yemen’s southern Shabwa province, a stronghold of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the country’s local branch of the terror group. U.S. drone struck first 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, he said.
At least nine al-Qaida militants were killed in an initial drone strike, another security official said. Both spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to speak to journalists.
Both Somers and Korkie “were murdered by the AQAP terrorists during the course of the operation,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said from Kabul, Afghanistan.
Saturday’s operation marked the second failed rescue by U.S. and Yemeni forces looking for Somers, among the roughly dozen hostages believed held by al-Qaida militants in Yemen. On Nov. 25, American special operations forces and Yemeni soldiers raided a remote al-Qaida safe haven in a desert region near the Saudi border, freeing eight captives — including Yemenis, a Saudi and an Ethiopian. Somers, a Briton and four others had been moved days earlier, officials later said.
Following the first raid, al-Qaida militants released a video Thursday that showed Somers, threatening to kill him in three days if the United States didn’t 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.
Before her brother’s death, Lucy Somers released an online video describing him as a romantic who “always believes the best in people.” She ended with the plea: “Please let him live.”
In a statement, Somers’ father, Michael, also called his son “a good friend of Yemen and the Yemeni people” and asked for his safe release.
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. Those close to Korkie said al-Qaida militants demanded a $3 million 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 Qaida 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.'”
Somers, who was born in Britain, earned a bachelor’s degree in creative writing while attending Beloit College in Wisconsin from 2004 through 2007.
“He really wanted to understand the world,” said Shawn Gillen, an English professor and chairman of Beloit College’s journalism program who had Gillen as a student.
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 said he last saw Somers the day before he was kidnapped.
“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,” Al Kadas wrote.
Al-Arashi, his editor at the Yemen Times, 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 writers who contributed to this report include Maamoun Youssef, Sarah El Deeb, Maggie Michael and Jon Gambrell in Cairo; Robert Burns in Kabul, Afghanistan; Ken Dilanian in Washington; Adam Schreck and Fay Abuelgasim in Manama, Bahrain; Andrew Meldrum in Johannesburg and Yusof Abdul-Rahman in London.