American, Dane rescued by US commandos inside Somalia

Members of Navy SEAL Team 6, the unit that killed Osama bin Laden, rescued the hostages from pirates inside Somalia.

Danish Refugee Council/AP
Hostages Dane Poul Hagen Thisted (l.) and American Jessica Buchanan were rescued by US military forces on Wednesday in a nighttime raid in Somalia.

Teams of Navy SEALs in helicopters staged an unprecedented night-time raid deep into Somalia’s pirate heartlands to free an American aid worker and her Danish colleague held hostage since October.

It was the first time in almost two decades – officially at least – that American boots landed on Somali soil, in an operation personally ordered by President Obama, who warned Wednesday he would “not tolerate the abduction” of Americans abroad.

The hostages, Jessica Buchanan, 32, from Virginia, and Poul Thisted, 60, from Denmark, were rescued unharmed despite reports of an hour-long gunbattle once the US troops were on the ground.

Their rescue was undertaken by the same SEAL unit that executed the Osama bin Laden operation, two US officials told the Associated Press on condition of anonymity. That unit is called the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, and is also known as the SEAL Team 6. The SEAL team 6 members who carried out the Somalia rescue operation were not the same individuals who killed bin Laden, the sources said. 

Up to six Navy helicopters carrying special forces and support troops took part in the mission overnight Tuesday. They flew in from Djibouti, on Africa’s Red Sea coast where there is a large US military base, to Galkayo, the largest town in Somalia close to the pirates’ strongholds.

From there, at least two helicopters continued to Higaale village, where Buchanan and Thisted were being held.

Their captors were caught by surprise and many were sleeping as the Navy SEALs swarmed out of their aircraft and began to advance on the pirates’ location.

Nine pirates were killed and five taken captive during the raid, which began at 2am local time on Wednesday, Mohamed Ahmed Alim, president of the local Galmudug region, told Reuters.

No American troops were injured in the operation.

Obama appeared to have known that the mission had been a success as he arrived at the House of Representatives to give his State of the Union address Tuesday evening.

By then it was already Wednesday morning in Somalia, and as he entered the House chamber, Obama pointed into the crowd at Leon Panetta, the Defense Secretary, and said, "Good job tonight."

It was the first time that the US has carried out an offensive operation to free hostages held on land by Somali pirates. There have been earlier missions to release Americans held at sea.

“I could not be prouder of the troops who carried out this mission, and the dedicated professionals who supported their efforts,” President Obama said in a statement. He said he authorized the rescue mission Monday.

“Jessica Buchanan was selflessly serving her fellow human beings when she was taken hostage by criminals and pirates who showed no regard for her health and well-being,” the president added.

“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.”

Buchanan and Thisted were flown directly from Somalia to arrive in Djibouti before dawn Wednesday. Officials there were coordinating their onward travel back to the US and Denmark following medical checks.

There were reports that one of the hostages had recently contracted a serious illness – possibly a kidney infection.

The pair was kidnapped in October as they carried out program work for the Danish Demining Group, under contract to the Danish Refugee Council.

Security teams hired to protect them were behind their kidnap, local officials said at the time they were seized.

Obama’s warning that abductions of Americans abroad “would not be tolerated” sent a strong signal of future missions targeting Somali pirates should they seize more US citizens.

* Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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