A BRITISH-born photojournalist and a South African teacher who were being held hostage by al-Qaeda militants in Yemen were killed yesterday during a failed US-led rescue mission.
President Barack Obama said he ordered the raid after being told that Luke Somers, an American citizen, was in “imminent danger”. Al-Qaeda has previously posted an online video threatening to kill Somers, 33, who was kidnapped by Islamist extremists in the Yemeni capital Sanaa more than a year ago. “Based on this assessment, and as soon as there was reliable intelligence and an operational plan, I authorised a rescue attempt,” Obama said.
A second hostage was also killed in the raid, named by aid charity Gift of Givers as South African teacher Pierre Korkie.
A senior White House official said yesterday that militants tried to kill Somers just before the raid, wounding him. US commandos took Somers to a navy ship in the region where he died, the official said.
The South African government did not immediately comment on Korkie’s death.
Lucy Somers, the photographer’s sister, told reporters that she and her father learned of her 33-year-old brother’s death from FBI agents early yesterday. “We ask that all of Luke’s family members be allowed to mourn in peace,” she said from her home in Kent.
Yemen’s national security chief, Major General Ali al-Ahmadi, said the militants planned to kill Luke Somers yesterday, prompting the joint mission.
“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.”
The operation began before dawn yesterday in Yemen’s southern Shabwa province, a stronghold of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
US drones struck the Wadi Abdan area first, followed by strafing runs by jets and Yemeni ground forces moving in, a Yemeni security official said. Helicopters also flew in more forces to raid the house where the two men were held, he said.
At least nine al-Qaeda militants were killed in an initial drone strike, another security official said. Both Somers and Korkie “were murdered by the AQAP terrorists during the course of the operation,” US secretary of defence Chuck Hagel said from Kabul, Afghanistan.
Yesterday’s operation marked the second failed rescue by US and Yemeni forces looking for Somers, among the roughly dozen hostages believed held by al-Qaeda militants in Yemen.
On 25 November US special operations forces and Yemeni soldiers raided a remote al-Qaeda safe haven in a desert region near the Saudi border, freeing eight captives – including Yemenis, a Saudi and an Ethiopian. Somers, a Briton and four others had been moved days earlier, officials later said.
Following the first raid, al-Qaeda militants released a video last Thursday that showed Somers, threatening to kill him in three days if the United States didn’t meet the group’s unspecified demands or if another rescue was attempted.
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.
Before her brother’s death, Lucy Somers released an online video describing him as a romantic who “always believes the best in people”. She ended with the plea: “Please let him live.”
In a statement, Somers’ father, Michael, also called his son “a good friend of Yemen and the Yemeni people” and asked for his safe release.
Korkie was kidnapped in the Yemeni city of Taiz in May 2013, along with his wife Yolande. Militants later released his wife after a non-governmental group, Gift of the Givers, helped negotiate her freedom. Those close to Korkie said al-Qaeda militants demanded a $3 million (£2m) ransom for his release.
Somers, who was born in Britain, earned a bachelor’s degree in creative writing at Beloit College in Wisconsin where he was a student from 2004 through 2007. “He really wanted to understand the world,” said Shawn Gillen, chairman of Beloit College’s journalism programme and one of Gillen’s teachers.
Fuad Al Kadas, who called Somers one of his best friends, said Somers spent time in Egypt before finding work in Yemen. Somers started teaching English at a Yemen school but quickly established himself as a one of the few foreign photographers in the country, he said.
“He is a great man with a kind heart who really loves the Yemeni people and the country,” Al Kadas wrote in an e-mail from Yemen. He said he last saw Somers the day before he was kidnapped.
“He was so dedicated in trying to help change Yemen’s future, to do good things for the people that he didn’t leave the country his entire time here,” Al Kadas wrote.