MOGADISHU (Reuters) - U.S. helicopters swooped into Somalia on Wednesday and rescued an American and a Dane after a shootout with pirates holding them hostage, in a rare raid into the Horn of Africa nation to free foreign captives.
American Jessica Buchanan and Dane Poul Hagen Thisted were kidnapped from the town of Galkayo in the semi-autonomous Galmudug region in October while working for the Danish Demining Group (DDG).
“The Danish Refugee Council hereby confirms that Jessica Buchanan and Poul Hagen Thisted have been rescued earlier today during an operation in Somalia,” the aid group said in a statement, adding that the two were unharmed at a safe location.
Somali pirate gangs typically seize ships in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden and hold the crews until they receive a ransom. The kidnapping of the aid workers in Galkayo was an unusual case of a pirate gang being behind a seizure on land.
While U.S. and French forces have intervened to rescue pirate hostages at sea, attacks on pirate bases are very rare. The only U.S. military base in Africa, and France’s largest on the continent, are both in neighbouring Djibouti.
Galmudug President Mohamed Ahmed Alim told Reuters nine pirates were killed and five captured during the rescue operation near the pirate haven of Haradheere.
Alim was speaking from Hobyo, another pirate base north of Haradheere, where he said he was negotiating the release of an American journalist seized on Saturday, also from Galkayo.
“About 12 U.S. helicopters are now at Galkayo. We thank the U.S. Pirates have spoilt the whole region’s peace and ethics. They are mafia,” Alim said.
Pirates and local elders say a British tourist kidnapped from Kenya on September 11, 2011, the American journalist and a number of sailors from India, South Korea, the Philippines and Denmark are being held by pirates around Haradheere and Hobyo.
NBC News, citing U.S. officials, reported that two teams of U.S. Navy SEALs landed by helicopter and rescued the hostages after a gun battle with the kidnappers. The freed hostages were taken by helicopter to an undisclosed location, NBC reported.
President Barack Obama was overheard congratulating Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, apparently for the success of the rescue operation, as Obama entered the House of Representatives chamber on Tuesday night to give his annual State of the Union speech.
“Leon. Good job tonight. Good job tonight,” Obama said. He did not mention the rescue during his speech.
Panetta visited U.S. troops in Djibouti mid-December on his way to Afghanistan and Iraq, in a stopover that reflected the Obama administration’s growing focus on the militant and piracy threats emanating from Yemen and the eastern edge of Africa.
In Djibouti, the United States has a platform to monitor, partly through the use of surveillance drones, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen and Somalia’s al Shabaab, a hardline rebel group with links to al Qaeda.
U.S. special forces killed senior al Qaeda militant Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in a raid in southern Somalia in 2009. Nabhan was suspected of building the bomb that killed 15 people at an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya in 2002.
Several other al Qaeda or al Shabaab officials have been killed in U.S. drone strikes in Somalia over the past few years.
Additional reporting by Mohamed Ahmed in Mogadishu, John Acher in Copenhagen, David Clarke in Nairobi and Eric Beech in Washington; Writing by Richard Lough and David Clarke; Editing by Tim Pearce