The Special Forces commandos who swept into Somalia under cover of darkness to rescue two hostages, an American woman and a Danish man, were part of Seal team six, the same navy unit that killed Osama bin Laden, it has emerged.
The Seals killed nine pirates on Tuesday night before rescuing Jessica Buchanan (32) and Poul Hagen Thisted (60). They had been held hostage for three months after their kidnap from Galkayo, in the Galmudug region of Somalia, last October.
President Barack Obama, who authorised the mission two days ago, made no mention of it in his State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday. But he was overheard congratulating defence secretary, Leon Panetta, on a “good job tonight” as he entered the House of Representatives chamber to give his address.
Minutes after he finished his speech, the president was on the phone to Buchanan’s father, John, to tell him that his daughter was safe.
Obama said in a predawn statement released by the White House on Wednesday: “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 US 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,” he said.
The pair was working for the DGG, a land mine clearance unit of the Danish Refugee Council, which confirmed the hostages were unharmed and “on their way to be reunited with their families”.
A senior administration official who was not authorised to speak publicly said new intelligence over the “deteriorating health” of Buchanan had prompted Obama to direct his security team to develop a rescue plan.
Mary Ann Olsen of the refugee council said Buchanan was “not that ill” and did not have to be hospitalised but did require medicine.
Olsen informed Thisted’s family of the successful military operation and said “they were very happy and incredibly relieved that it is over”. She said the freed hostages were in Djibouti and would soon be moved to a “safe haven”.
Pentagon officials have refused to discuss the details of the raid, which took place near the Somali town of Adado. But according to officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the rescue team — part of the naval special warfare development group — parachuted into the area before moving in on foot.
They arrived when the guards were asleep. A pirate who gave his name as Bile Hussein said the guards had been sleeping off the effects of the stimulant leaf khat, popular in Somalia, which they had been chewing for most of the evening. Hussein said he was not present, but had spoken to others who said that nine people had been killed and three were “taken away”. Officials said that the Seals had intended to capture the kidnappers, but, for reasons that have not been explained, nine were killed.
Following the operation, the rescue team and hostages flew by helicopter to Camp Lemonnier, a US base in Djibouti.
While the commandos were drawn from Seal team six, it is understood they were not the same personnel as those in the Bin Laden operation and officials stressed that members of the other armed forces were also involved in the rescue.
When the pair was kidnapped, hundreds of Somalis demonstrated against the act in the streets.
“We are really happy with the successful release of the innocents kidnapped by evildoers,” Muhammad Sahal, an elder in Galkayo town, said. “They were guests who were treated brutally. That was against Islam and our culture … These men have spoiled our good customs and culture, so Somalis should fight back.”
Several hostages are still being held in Somalia, including a British tourist, two Spanish doctors seized from neighbouring Kenya, and an American journalist who was kidnapped on Saturday.
Negotiations with Somali pirates are notoriously tricky and they typically only release hostages for multimillion-pound ransoms. A British couple, Paul and Rachel Chandler, who were kidnapped from their yacht by Somali pirates in 2009 and held captive for 13 months, were finally freed in November 2010 after an undisclosed sum was paid. —