US officials have said they had no choice but to launch a special forces rescue operation in Yemen that ended with al-Qaeda killing a US photojournalist and a South African teacher on Saturday as separate reports yesterday said that several Guantanamo Bay prisoners had been released in a long-delayed transfer plan.
The hostages in Yemen — 33-year-old Luke Somers of the US and 57-year-old South African Pierre Korkie — were killed by their captors when US troops stormed an al-Qaeda hideout early on Saturday.
The failed raid came after the kidnappers had threatened to kill Somers within 72 hours, and just a day before Korkie was due to be released under a negotiated deal.
Calling the murders “barbaric,” US President Barack Obama said he had authorized the rescue attempt because the video and other information “indicated that Luke’s life was in imminent danger.”
“The United States will spare no effort to use all of its military, intelligence and diplomatic capabilities to bring Americans home safely, wherever they are located,” he said.
A senior US defense official said there were “good indications” that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group’s powerful Yemeni branch, “were preparing to kill” Somers.
“It was either act now and take the risk, or let that deadline pass. And no one was willing to do that,” said the official, who was with US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in the Afghan capital, Kabul.
British-born Somers, 33, had worked as a freelance photographer for the BBC and spent time at local newspapers, including the Yemen Times, before being abducted in Sana’a in September last year.
Korkie and his wife, Yolande, who had worked as teachers in Yemen for four years, were kidnapped by al-Qaeda in May last year. She was released in January and the Gift of Givers charity said logistical arrangements had already been put in place to fly Korkie out of Yemen yesterday.
One hostage — it was not clear who — died en route to the USS Makin Island off Yemen, and the other died on an operating table, officials said.
Friends and family described Somers as a committed journalist who sought to document the lives of ordinary people amid turmoil.
“Luke was a photojournalist who sought through his images to convey the lives of Yemenis to the outside world,” Obama said.
Korkie’s family had been expecting him home soon, said Gift of Givers, which had been negotiating 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-Qaeda tomorrow,” it said on Saturday. “Three days ago we told her: ‘Pierre will be home for Christmas.’ We certainly did not mean it in the manner it has unfolded.”
Six prisoners from Guantanamo Bay have been transferred to Uruguay, the US government said yesterday, announcing a resettlement deal that had been delayed for months by security concerns in the Pentagon and political considerations in the South American nation.
The six are the first prisoners transferred to South America from the US base in Cuba, part of a flurry of recent releases amid a renewed push by Obama to close the prison.
Uruguayan President Jose Mujica agreed to accept the six men — four Syrians, a Tunisian and a Palestinian — as a humanitarian gesture and said they would be given help getting established in a nation with a small Muslim population.
All six were detained as suspected militants with ties to al-Qaeda in 2002, but were never charged. They have been cleared for release since at least 2010, but they could not be sent home and have languished as the US struggled to find nations willing to accept them.
“We are very grateful to Uruguay for this important humanitarian action, and to President Mujica for his strong leadership in providing a home for individuals who cannot return to their own countries,” US Department of State envoy Clifford Sloan said.
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