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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

U.S. Military Frees 2 Foreign Hostages From Somali Pirates


By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN Published: January 25, 2012

KHARTOUM, Sudan — American commandos raced into Somalia on Wednesday morning and rescued two aid workers, including an American woman, after a shootout with Somali pirates who had been holding them captive for months.

The American soldiers swooped in by helicopter, killed nine pirates and captured several others, before spiriting away the hostages, who were not harmed, Western officials said.

It appeared that President Obama was fully aware of the raid as he was about to give his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, which would have been early Wednesday in Somalia.

According to NBC News, as the president stepped into the House chambers, he pointed to Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta standing in the crowd and said, “Leon. Good job tonight. Good job tonight.” The president made no mention of the rescue in Somalia, but he did refer to the killing of Osama bin Laden last May in a similar operation conducted by Navy Seals.

In a statement Wednesday from the White House, the president said he authorized the operation on Monday. “Thanks to the extraordinary courage and capabilities of our Special Operations forces, yesterday Jessica Buchanan was rescued and she is on her way home. As commander in chief, I could not be prouder of the troops who carried out this mission, and the dedicated professionals who supported their efforts.”

The statement continued: “Last night I spoke with Jessica Buchanan’s father and told him that all Americans have Jessica in our thoughts and prayers, and give thanks that she will soon be reunited with her family. 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. This is yet another message to the world that the United States of America will stand strongly against any threats to our people.”

Somalia is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world, infested by pirate gangs and countless militant groups, a lawless space that has languished for 21 years without a functioning government. Several Westerners have recently been kidnapped, typically for ransom, and it seems that as Somalia’s pirates have a harder time hijacking ships on the high seas, because of the beefed up naval efforts, they are increasingly turning to snatching foreigners on land.

On Oct. 25, Jessica Buchanan, an American, and Poul Hagen Thisted, a Dane, were kidnapped by two truckloads of gunmen as they headed to the airport in Galkaiyo, a central Somalia town on the edge of pirate territory. The two were working for the Danish Demining Group, one of the few Western organizations that was still operating in that area.

Somali officials immediately suspected that a local employee had tipped off the gunmen and it soon emerged that the men holding the aid workers were part of a well-established pirate gang. Negotiations with pirates can drag on for months. One British couple who were sailing around the world on a small sailboat were kidnapped by pirates from this same patch of central Somalia and then held in captivity in punishing conditions for more than a year.

Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, the internationally recognized but relatively impotent authority based in the capital, Mogadishu, has little influence over the pirates. Neither do the traditional, clan-based militias who still operate in these areas but can’t afford the weaponry or manpower now fielded by well-financed pirate gangs.

Somalia is also considered a no-go zone for conventional American military operations, but it has been the site of several special operations raids, usually to kill wanted terrorist suspects. American forces stage the raids from a constellation of bases ringing Somalia, in Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti.

According to local leaders in Galkaiyo, dark helicopters began circling over the area late on Tuesday night. Sometime around 3 a.m., the American commandos landed near a small village called Hiimo Gaabo, south of Galkaiyo and a firefight erupted.

The commandos freed the hostages and the helicopters took off. By dawn, after morning prayers, the bodies of the nine pirates killed in the raid were brought back to Hiimo Gaabo.

According to the local leaders, three to six pirates were captured.

“The aid workers are fine, they are in Djibouti and in good shape,” said a United Nations official who was not authorized to speak publicly. The official said that local leaders in the area were pleased with the rescue operation, because there is little sympathy for the pirate gangs, who are blamed for sullying Somalia’s reputation and causing inflation by carelessly spending millions of dollars of ransom money.

Several local leaders in Galkaiyo had just returned from trying to secure the release of another American, a freelance journalist who was kidnapped last week in Galkaiyo. He remains in captivity in Hobyo, a pirate den on the Somali coast, because the pirates holding him refuse to let him go without a hefty ransom. [

“Maybe this will send a message,” the United Nations official said

Helene Cooper contributed reporting from Washington.

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