President Barack Obama said Saturday he authorized the attempt to rescue American Luke Somers in Yemen because the U.S. had information that the American photojournalist's life was in imminent danger.
Shortly before the White House statement, Yemen's national security chief said militants had planned to kill Somers on Saturday. On Thursday, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula posted a video online threatening to kill the American.
"Al Qaeda promised to conduct the execution (of Somers) today so there was an attempt to save them but unfortunately they shot the hostage before or during the attack," al-Ahmadi said at a conference in Manama, Bahrain. "He was freed but unfortunately he was dead."
Authorities said Somers, who was kidnapped in September 2013, and a South African teacher, Pierre Korkie, were killed in the rescue operation that Obama said was conducted by U.S. forces in partnership with Yemen's government.
The president said he "strongly condemns the barbaric murder of Luke Somers at the hands of Al Qaeda terrorists" and reaffirmed that the U.S. "will spare no effort to use all its military, intelligence and diplomatic capabilities to bring Americans home safely, wherever they are located."
Obama said terrorists "who seek to harm out citizens will feel the long arm of American justice."
A mysterious U.S. raid last month had tried to rescue Somers but that he turned out not to be at the site, the Pentagon's spokesman acknowledged Thursday.
Obama cited the captors' video threatening to kill Somers within 72 hours and said "other information also indicated that Luke's life was in imminent danger."
"Based on this assessment, and as soon as there was reliable intelligence and an operational plan, I authorized a rescue attempt yesterday," Obama said in the White House statement.
Secretary of State John Kerry also cited "a compelling indication that Luke's life was in immediate danger" and said "we recommended that the president authorize an attempt to rescue Luke."
Obama said Somers wanted to use his photographic images to convey the lives of Yemenis to outsiders, and had come to the country "in peace and was held against his will and threatened by a despicable terrorist organization. The callous disregard for Luke's life is more proof of the depths of AQAP's depravity, and further reason why the world must never cease in seeking to defeat their evil ideology."
The aid group Gift of Givers later identified the second hostage as Korkie, who the group said was to be released Sunday. They said he was to be flown out of Yemen "under diplomatic cover, then to meet with family members in a 'safe' country (and) fly to South Africa."
Lucy Somers, the photojournalist's sister, told The Associated Press that she and her father learned of her 33-year-old brother's death from FBI agents at 0500 GMT (12 a.m. EST) Saturday.
"We ask that all of Luke's family members be allowed to mourn in peace," Lucy Somers said from London.
Korkie was kidnapped in the Yemeni city of Taiz in May 2013, along with his wife Yolande. His wife later was released returned to South Africa. A non-governmental group, Gift of the Givers, helped mediate her release. Those close to Korkie said al-Qaida militants demanded a $3 million ransom for his release.
"The psychological and emotional devastation to Yolande and her family will be compounded by the knowledge that Pierre was to be released by al Qaida tomorrow," Gift of Givers said in a statement Saturday. "A team of Abyan leaders met in Aden this morning and were preparing the final security and logistical arrangements, related to hostage release mechanisms, to bring Pierre to safety and freedom. It is even more tragic that the words we used in a conversation with Yolande at 5.59 this morning was 'The wait is almost over.'"
In a statement Thursday, Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby acknowledged for the first time that a mysterious U.S. raid last month had sought to rescue Somers but that he turned out not to be at the site. The U.S. considers Yemen's al-Qaida branch to be the world's most dangerous arm of the group as it has been linked to several failed attacks on the U.S. homeland.
Kirby did not elaborate on the joint U.S-Yemeni operation to free Somers, saying details remained classified. However, officials have said the raid targeted a remote al-Qaida safe haven in a desert region near the Saudi border. Eight captives — including Yemenis, a Saudi and an Ethiopian — were freed. Somers, a Briton and four others had been moved days earlier.
Somers was kidnapped in September 2013 as he left a supermarket in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, said Fakhri al-Arashi, chief editor of the National Yemen, where Somers worked as a copy editor and a freelance photographer during the 2011 uprising in Yemen.
Somers, who was born in Britain, earned a bachelor's degree in creative writing while attending Beloit College in Wisconsin from 2004 through 2007.
Associated Press writers who contributed to this report include Maamoun Youssef, Sarah El Deeb, Maggie Michael and Jon Gambrell in Cairo; Robert Burns in Kabul, Afghanistan; Adam Schreck and Fay Abuelgasim in Manama, Bahrain; Andrew Meldrum in Johannesburg and Yusof Abdul-Rahman in London.