American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON – While President Barack Obama delivered the State of the Union address last night, a joint special operations forces team was finishing up a dramatic rescue of two hostages -- one of whom was seriously ill -- from an armed encampment in Somalia.
“A convergence of factors contributed to the decision to undertake the operation last night,” Pentagon Press Secretary George Little told reporters here today.
Among those factors was a window of opportunity for mission success, he said, and information that one of the captured humanitarian workers, Jessica Buchanan of the United States, had a serious medical condition that could threaten her life.
“That added a sense of urgency to the need to move ahead,” Little said, “and that along with other considerations led to the decision to go with the operation yesterday.”
Details of what happened on the scene still are being determined, he said, adding that nine criminal suspects were killed during the rescue.
“They were heavily armed and had explosives at the site,” Little said.
Buchanan and Poul Thisted of Denmark worked for the Danish Demining Group, a nonprofit humanitarian organization for which the two were teaching local Somalis how to remove land mines from their environment. They were kidnapped at gunpoint Oct. 25 near Galcayo, Somalia, and were being held for ransom, according to a U.S. Africa Command statement. When the U.S. Justice Department requested help from the Defense Department, the statement added, Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, Africom’s commander, was directed to plan and conduct the rescue operation.
Whenever an American is taken hostage overseas, the FBI becomes involved in the investigation, said Navy Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.
“There was close coordination with the FBI throughout [the operation],” Kirby added. “It was very much an interagency effort.”
The president authorized the operation Jan. 23, and the military commanders decided to move ahead with it yesterday, Kirby said. “We made the proper notifications that needed to be made in the region,” he added.
The joint special operations assault team landed near Cadaado in north-central Somalia on Jan. 23 in the early evening Washington time, Kirby said, but “the operation was not over until a number of hours later, when the hostages were secured and our service members were safely out of harm’s way.”
The president, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and other national security officials monitored the operation’s progress from the White House before leaving to attend the president’s State of the Union address. As the president spoke during the Capitol Hill event, Kirby said, “we knew at that point that shots had been fired [and] that casualties had been taken among the kidnappers, but more importantly, we knew that the two hostages were safe.”
Little said there have been consultations between the U.S. and Danish governments and that “some of those consultations occurred prior to the operation.”
During the rescue, the assault team made its way to the outdoor encampment and confirmed that Buchanan and Thisted were there, guarded by nine captors. After securing the location, the team found Buchanan and Thisted unharmed.
Details about Buchanan’s medical condition have not been released. “We believe it was pre-existing when she was taken hostage, and also have reason to believe that it was getting worse while she was in captivity,” Kirby said.
U.S. military doctors and nurses are treating Buchanan and Thisted at a medical facility in the region, he added, and their repatriation has yet to be worked out.
"Last night's mission, boldly conducted by some of our nation's most courageous, competent and committed special operations forces, exemplifies United States Africa Command's mission to protect Americans and American interests in Africa," Ham said in a statement.
"I am extraordinarily proud of the joint-service team that planned, rehearsed and successfully concluded this operation. Thanks to them, a fellow American and her Danish co-worker are safe and will soon be home with their families,” he added.
“We should remember that Mrs. Buchanan and Mr. Thisted were working to protect the people of Somalia when they were violently kidnapped,” the general said. “It is my hope that all those who work in Somalia for the betterment of the Somali people can be free from the dangers of violent criminals."