Barking Dog Foils Rescue as Hostages Killed by al-Qaeda

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A U.S. photojournalist and a South African aid worker died in Yemen after al-Qaeda militants, tipped off by a barking dog to an approaching U.S.-led rescue mission, shot their captives before being killed themselves.

The military operation to extract American hostage Luke Somers, the second rescue attempt in two weeks, came after U.S. officials became convinced that extremists from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula would execute him today, U.S. officials said.

The second hostage, Pierre Korkie, a 54-year-old former track coach who was working in Yemen as a teacher, was due to be freed by the kidnappers tomorrow after 11 months of preparations, according to Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of the South African charity Gift of the Givers which was working with local tribes to negotiate his release.

President Barack Obama denounced Somers’s death as a “barbaric murder.”

“Luke’s life was in imminent danger,” Obama said in an e-mailed statement. “Based on this assessment, and as soon as there was reliable intelligence and an operational plan, I authorized a rescue attempt yesterday.”

Nighttime Mission

The mission in the southern Yemeni region of Shabwa was based in part on intelligence gleaned from the previous rescue attempt, the U.S. officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss operational details. The U.S. was certain Somers was at the site but wasn’t sure about other hostages, one of the officials said.

The operation began about 1 a.m. Yemen time. About 40 U.S. commandos were dropped by CV-22 Osprey aircraft about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the compound in a spot shielded by hilly terrain. They traveled on foot, accompanied by Yemeni allies, to the compound with the aid of night-vision equipment. When they were about 100 yards (90 meters) away, a barking dog betrayed their presence, the U.S. officials said.

The militants shot the hostages before the commandos could reach them inside the compound, which was divided into four smaller interior compounds. A U.S. surgical team treated the wounded hostages while under fire and they were placed in an Osprey for evacuation. Both hostages were pronounced dead when they reached the U.S.S. Makin Island, which was located off the coast of Yemen.

The assault was over in less than 30 minutes, U.S. officials said. Four Yemeni counterterrorism troops were wounded and several militants were killed, U.S. and Yemeni officials said.

Militant Advance

The rescue effort came as Shiite Muslim Houthi rebels maintain their grip on Yemen’s capital of Sana’a and battle al-Qaeda militants in different areas of the country. The Houthis took Sana’a in September, then forced President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi, who is backed by the Sunni-ruled Gulf Cooperation Council, to form a new government.

Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni monarchies of the GCC have expressed concern that Iranian influence is behind the advance of the Houthi fighters in the Arabian peninsula’s poorest country. The swift advance by Houthis has deepened instability in Yemen, raising concerns that the country may split along sectarian and tribal lines.

Second Attempt

U.S. forces had already tried once to rescue Somers. During an operation in November, special forces rescued eight other hostages. Somers had been moved by his captors shortly before that raid, U.S. officials said.

Somers, who was born in Britain and raised in the U.S., arrived in Yemen in 2011 to work as a teacher. An amateur photographer, he began taking pictures as the Arab Spring uprising swept across the country and began to work as a freelance journalist for the British Broadcasting Co. and other news organizations, the BBC said on its website.

Shortly before his kidnapping, Somers was making plans to leave Yemen, with plans to return, according to an e-mail published by the BBC.

“It’s an emptying thought, imaging rooting yourself so firmly in a place, only to never return,” Somers wrote in the e-mail. “So return I should, return I must.”

His stepmother, Penny Bearman, told the BBC his British relatives were mourning his death.

“Luke was a peace-loving person who cared for the Yemeni people and the Yemeni struggle,” she said, speaking from the town of Deal. “It is a tragedy that his life should end in this way.”

Near Release

Korkie, a former track coach who worked in 1988 and 1989 with South African Olympian Zola Budd, was kidnapped in May 2013 along with his wife Yolande as they were working for a local charity in the southern Yemeni province of Taiz. Yolande Korkie was released without conditions in January.

Arrangements had been made to fly Korkie tomorrow to a third “safe country” and then to South Africa, said Sooliman from Gift of the Givers.

“There was never a guarantee we would get him out,” Sooliman said by telephone from Johannesburg. “You always try your best. I always told Yolande it is whatever God wills.”

Sooliman said Korkie’s wife learned of his death two hours after she was told he would be released.

“I was stunned when I heard the news,” Sooliman said. “I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock.”

(Updates with additional details starting in sixth paragraph.)
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