Somalia Hostages Freed by U.S. Special Forces in Pre-Dawn Helicopter Raid

U.S. commandos, including some from the Navy SEAL unit that killed Osama Bin Laden, freed two kidnapped aid workers in Somalia, an American woman and a Danish man, in a raid today that ended their three months of captivity.

Jessica Buchanan, 32, and Poul Hagen Thisted, 60, were rescued and were taken to a safe location unharmed, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a statement on the U.S. Defense Department’s website.

The U.S. Africa Command, which has U.S. military responsibility for the continent, said in a statement that nine kidnappers were killed in the pre-dawn assault. The kidnappers were armed and had explosives nearby, officials said.

“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,” President Barack Obama said in a statement today, praising troops who carried out the mission.

The raid was the second major commando operation Obama has publicly acknowledged ordering since coming into office. The first was the U.S. Navy SEAL team raid in Pakistan that killed bin Laden in May.

Like the raid on bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan, the rescue mission was carried out by special operations forces from a number of military services utilizing intelligence collected by the CIA, the National Security Agency and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, according to a U.S. defense official familiar with the operation.

Military Team

They included the Navy’s elite counterterrorist Special Warfare Development Group, formerly known as SEAL Team Six, based at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Ft. Story, Virginia; helicopters and aircrews from the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment headquartered at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft from the Air Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron based at Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina; and Air Force pararescue personnel, according to the official who wasn’t authorized to discuss the operation publicly.

The Pentagon’s new strategy places heavy emphasis on the use of U.S. special operations forces in both counter-terrorism and foreign assistance roles.

Black Hawk Down

The quick in-and-out raid contrasts with the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” experience in Somalia. In that case, 18 U.S. military personnel were killed in the capital, Mogadishu, in an ill-fated U.S. helicopter mission during an international humanitarian effort in the war-torn nation.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said in an e-mail that Obama was referring to the raid when he was overheard by television microphones praising Panetta in the U.S. House chamber before the State of the Union address yesterday evening. “Leon, good job tonight,” Obama was heard saying. “Good job tonight.”

The mission was still under way “when the president was at the podium,” Little said.

The raid was executed because of an “added sense of urgency and after the timing was determined to be right,” Little said.

Buchanan’s “deteriorating” health was a factor that “contributed to the sense of urgency,” said Navy Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman. “But there were other factors. It was ‘actionable intelligence on where she was, who had her and her Danish colleague,’’ Kirby said. ‘‘There was a window of opportunity that we felt we had to take advantage of.’’

On-Going Operation

Little and Kirby said there was close coordination with the FBI before and during the raid, which Obama authorized Monday.

‘‘The military commanders decided to move ahead with this yesterday,’’ Little said.

‘‘The assault team landed early evening’’ Washington time, Little said. Somalia is eight hours ahead of Washington, making the operation Wednesday local time.

‘‘The operation was not over until a number of hours later when the hostages were secured.’’

Buchanan and Thisted were abducted on Oct. 25 in Galkayo, about 575 kilometers (358 miles) northwest of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, while visiting a demining project there, according to their employer, the Copenhagen-based Danish Refugee Council.

The U.S. military had been monitoring the two hostages since their capture, Kirby said.

Connecting the Dots

‘‘Within the last week we were able to connect enough dots that we were able to make the decisions that we made,’’ Kirby said.

The Danish Refugee Council was ‘‘informed of the possibility of a rescue operation taking place, but knew of no specific details on how and when,’’ Ann Mary Olsen, head of the Council’s International Department, said on the group’s website. ‘‘What we know for sure, and what is most important for us, is that Poul and Jessica are now free. We thank those who have ended this extreme ordeal and criminal act that Jessica and Poul were victims of.”

Criminal gangs and pirates operating from Somalia have previously targeted foreigners for ransom. Gunmen abducted an American man in Galkayo on Jan. 21, the Associated Press reported, citing an unidentified Somali minister.

The Africa Command said it acted on a request from the U.S. Justice Department for assistance. The operation began following receipt of “actionable intelligence,” according to a statement on its website.

Abductors Killed

The nine abductors were killed in a fire-fight to secure the location and the hostages were found after the assault stopped, the Stuttgart, Germany-based Africa Command said.

Kirby said there is no “firm linkage” establishing that the kidnappers were pirates or connected to pirate operations.

Somalia descended into chaos after the ouster of dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991. Al-Shabaab, the Islamic militant group with links to al-Qaeda, has been battling Somalia’s Western-backed transitional federal government for five years and controls most of the country’s south and central regions.

To contact the reporters on this story: Tony Capaccio in Washington at acapaccio@bloomberg.net; Sarah McGregor in Nairobi at smcgregor5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

Bloomberg reserves the right to edit or remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.