MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — U.S. military forces flew into Somalia in a nighttime helicopter raid Wednesday, freed an American and a Danish hostage, and killed nine pirates in a mission President Barack Obama appeared to reference before his State of the Union speech, officials and a pirate source said.
The Danish Refugee Council confirmed that the two aid workers, American Jessica Buchanan and Dane Poul Hagen Thisted, were freed “during an operation in Somalia.” Buchanan, 32, and Thisted, 60, had been working with a de-mining unit of the Danish Refugee Council when they were kidnapped in October.
Obama seemed to refer to the mission before his State of the Union address in Washington Tuesday night. As he entered the House chamber in the U.S. Capitol, he pointed at Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in the crowd and said, “Good job tonight.”
A Western official told The Associated Press that the raid was carried out by U.S. military forces. A second official said the helicopters and the hostages flew to a U.S. military base called Camp Lemonnier in the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the information had not been released publicly.
The timing of the raid may have been made more urgent by a medical condition. The Danish Refugee Council had been trying to work with Somali elders to win the hostages’ freedom but had found little success.
“One of the hostages has a disease that was very serious and that had to be solved,” Danish Foreign Minister Villy Soevndal told Denmark’s TV2 channel. Soevndal did not provide any more details.
Soevndal congratulated the Americans for the successful raid and said he had been informed of the action but declined to say when exactly the Danes were informed.
Panetta visited Camp Lemonnier just over a month ago. A key U.S. ally in this region, Djibouti has the only U.S. base in sub-Saharan Africa. It hosts the military’s Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa.
The Danish Refugee Council said both freed hostages are unharmed “and at a safe location.” The group said in a separate statement that the two “are on their way to be reunited with their families.”
Ann Mary Olsen, head of the Danish Refugee Council’s international department, was the one who informed the family of Hagen Thisted of the successful military operation.
“They (the family) were very happy and incredibly relieved that it is over,” she said.
The two aid workers appear to have been kidnapped by criminals — sometimes referred to as pirates — and not by Somalia’s al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabab. As large ships at sea have increased their defenses against pirate attacks, gangs have looked for other money making opportunities like land-based kidnappings.
A pirate who gave his name as Bile Hussein said he had spoken to pirates at the scene of the raid and they reported that nine pirates had been killed and three are missing. He said the raid had been very quick and caught the guards as they were sleeping after having chewed the narcotic leaf qat for much of the evening. Qat is a stimulant but users often sleep heavily after hours of chewing.
A second pirate who gave his name as Ahmed Hashi said two helicopters attacked at about 2 a.m. at the site where the hostages were being held about 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of the Somali town of Adado.
Maj. Kelly Cahalan, a military spokeswoman at U.S. Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany, said she had no information on the raid. A spokeswoman at the Pentagon had no immediate comment. U.S. military rescue operations are typically carried out by highly trained special forces.
The Danish Refugee Council had earlier enlisted traditional Somali elders and members of civil society to seek the release of the two hostages.
“We are really happy with the successful release of the innocents kidnapped by evildoers,” said Mohamud Sahal, an elder in Galkayo town, by phone. “They were guests who were treated brutally. That was against Islam and our culture ... These men (pirates) have spoiled our good customs and culture, so Somalis should fight back.”
The two were seized in October from the portion of Galkayo town under the control of a government-allied clan militia. The aid agency has said that Somalis held demonstrations demanding the pair’s quick release.
Their Somali colleague was detained by police on suspicion of being involved in their kidnapping.
The two hostages were working in northern Somalia for the Danish Demining Group, whose experts have been clearing mines and unexploded ordnance in conflict zones in Africa and the Middle East.
Several hostages are still being held in Somalia, including a British tourist and two Spanish doctors seized from neighboring Kenya, and an American journalist kidnapped on Saturday.
Associated Press reporters Jason Straziuso in Nairobi, Kenya, and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark contributed to this report. Houreld reported from Nairobi.