A predawn raid to rescue American photojournalist Luke Somers and a South African teacher from their captors in Yemen was “high-risk,” but U.S. officials were determined to save them. The stealth mission became a race against time.
American special forces landed in helicopters in the remote area of the Shabwah province, storming an al Qaeda compound just after midnight Saturday. A frenetic gunfight with militants ensued. Amid the chaos, the captives were mortally wounded.
A senior administration official told NBC News that all involved in the operation were grieving in the wake of the hostages' death. It came two days after the Pentagon said U.S. commandos had tried to rescue Somers previously. But President Barack Obama felt that attempting a second rescue at such a pivotal moment had to be done, the official said.
"It is my highest responsibility to do everything possible to protect American citizens," Obama said in a statement Saturday. "We remain determined to do our utmost to bring them home, and to hold those who have done them harm accountable."
Senior administration officials believed the threat to kill the men was credible. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released a video early Thursday saying that Somers would be executed within 72 hours if the group's demands to the U.S. government were not met. Defense officials said they had reliable intelligence about where 33-year-old Somers was being held, and Obama and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel approved a special mission to raid the location and bring Somers home.
A team of 40 special forces, including 20 Navy Seals, were deployed to a compound in Central Yemen later Friday, according to a senior military official. After landing in two helicopters about two miles from the compound where Somers was believed to be, the Seals set out on foot to approach the complex in the cover of night. Gunfire rang out. In a quick exchange, lasting no more than 10 minutes, at least a half-dozen al Qaeda captors were killed, the official said. No U.S. commandos were injured in the raid.
But during the volley of shots, it is believed that a single militant attempted to kill Somers and the other hostage, later identified as 56-year-old South African Pierre Korkie, according to the disaster relief group with which he worked. The special forces were able to evacuate the two injured hostages and bring them aboard V-22 Ospreys, but neither survived.
Senior administration officials wouldn't confirm how the hostages were killed, but didn't dismiss reports that they had been shot.
The raid was monitored from Washington, D.C., as it was carried out, and Hagel was updated on the developments while flying to Afghanistan, according to a senior defense official.
"I commend the troops who undertook this dangerous mission. Their service and valor are an inspiration to all of us," Hagel said in a statement. "Yesterday's mission is a reminder of America's unrelenting commitment to the safety of our fellow citizens — wherever they might be around the world."
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— Kristen Welker, Jim Miklaszewski and Elisha Fieldstadt