KHARTOUM, Sudan - US Navy SEALs swooped into Somalia early yesterday and rescued two aid workers, an American woman and a Danish man, after a shootout with Somali gunmen who had been holding them captive in a sweltering desert hide-out for months.
Under a cloak of darkness, a couple of dozen SEALs parachuted in, stormed the hide-out, killed nine gunmen, and then whisked the aid workers into waiting helicopters, Pentagon officials said. The SEALs were from the same elite Navy commando unit - SEAL Team Six - that secretly entered Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden in May, senior US officials said, although the rescue mission in Somalia was carried out by a different assault team within the unit.
President Obama was closely tracking the raid Tuesday night, which was yesterday morning in Somalia, and as he stepped into the House chamber to deliver his State of the Union address, he looked at Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta standing in the crowd and said: “Leon, good job tonight, good job.’’
The hostages were safe and soon flown to a US military base in neighboring Djibouti. No SEALs were hurt during the operation, Pentagon officials said.
Obama seems to have taken a special interest in this case, presiding over several high-level meetings on it since the two aid workers were kidnapped in October by gunmen whom Somali elders said were part of a well-established pirate gang.
Pirates operate with total impunity in many parts of lawless Somalia, which has languished without a functioning government for more than 20 years. As naval efforts have intensified on the high seas, stymieing hijackings, Somali pirates seem to be increasingly snatching foreigners on land. Just last week, pirates grabbed another US hostage not far from where the SEAL raid took place.
US officials said they were moved to strike in this case because they had received “actionable intelligence’’ that the health of Jessica Buchanan, the US aid worker, was rapidly deteriorating. The gunmen had just refused $1.5 million to let the two hostages go, Somali elders said, and ransom negotiations had ground to a halt.
Somali pirates have held hostages for months, often in punishing conditions with little food, water, or shelter, and past ransoms have topped more than $10 million.
One British couple sailing around the world on a small sailboat was kidnapped by pirates from this same patch of central Somalia and held in captivity for more than a year.
Obama said he had personally authorized the go-ahead for the operation Monday.
“As commander in chief, I could not be prouder of the troops who carried out this mission,’’ he said in a statement yesterday. “The United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people.’’
On Oct. 25, Buchanan and Poul Hagen Thisted, the Danish aid worker, were kidnapped by two truckloads of gunmen as they headed to the airport in Galkayo, a central Somalia town on the edge of pirate territory. The two were working for the Danish Refugee Council, one of the few Western organizations still operating in that area. The aid workers had just finished a workshop on land mines when they were kidnapped.
Buchanan, 32, has been working in Africa for about five years and “could hardly talk about Africa without tears in her eyes,’’ said Don Meyer, the president of Valley Forge Christian College in Phoenixville, Pa., which Buchanan attended.
Somali officials immediately suspected that a local employee of the Danish aid group had tipped off the gunmen. Although US officials argued that the kidnappers were criminals with no direct links to any of the pirate bands that have attacked shipping lanes off Somalia, Somali elders said the men belonged to a well-known pirate gang drawn from local clans.
Sometime late Tuesday night, elders in Galkayo said they began hearing the whirl of helicopters. Then a huge plane landed at the Galkayo airport, which is very unusual at night. Pentagon officials said the SEALs dropped into the area by parachute, around 2 a.m., and hiked nearly 2 miles to the encampment where the hostages were being held, near a small village called Hiimo Gaabo, south of Galkayo.
One pirate from the area who seemed to have especially detailed information about the raid said the SEALs used “an electrical net-trap, flattened into the land,’’ which presumably was the parachute.
“Then they started launching missiles,’’ said the pirate, who spoke by telephone and asked not to be identified.
According to Pentagon officials, within minutes of the SEALs reaching the encampment, shots rang out. The hostages were quickly located and freed. In the ensuing gun battle, the nine Somali gunmen were killed.