A U.S. special operations team of Navy SEALs rescued two aid workers in Somalia Tuesday night, including a U.S. woman who had been held hostage for three months by Somalian kidnappers and suffered from a life-threatening medical condition.
Jessica Buchanan, 32, of Bedford, Va., and Poul Hagen Thisted, 60, of Denmark, were abducted Oct. 25 by a band of Somalis while on their way to the airport in Galcayo, located in central Somalia. Both were working for the Danish Refugee Council’s Danish Demining Group, and had just finished a training course for Somalis when they were abducted.
In a statement released by the White House, President Obama said he had authorized a rescue mission 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,” Obama said in the statement.
The president said he spoke with Buchanan’s father Monday night, “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,” he added.
Obama made no mention of the successful raid during his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, although keen observers noted an interesting exchange with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as he entered the House Chamber.
Obama pointed to Panetta and said, “Leon. Good job tonight. Good job tonight.”
In a statement released today, Panetta said he was pleased that neither Buchanan nor Thisted was harmed during the operation. “This mission demonstrates our military’s commitment to the safety of our fellow citizens wherever they may be around the world,” he said.
Panetta described the rescue as “a team effort and required close coordination, especially between the Department of Defense and our colleagues in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. ”
The Danish Refugee Council also confirmed the rescue in a statement, saying, “The two aid workers from the Danish Refugee Council’s demining unit, DDG, are both unharmed and at a safe location.”
The rescue mission began around 2 a.m. local time as team of Navy SEALs parachuted into the area near the desert encampment where the two aid workers were being held, a U.S. official said. U.S. Africa Command said in a statement that the raid took place in the vicinity of Gadaado, Somalia.
As they approached the camp, the official said, there was a firefight and that there were no U.S. casualties. U.S. Africa Command said that the nine Somalian captors were all killed in the firefight.
After freeing Buchanan and Thisted, the military team and the aid workers left the area via helicopter and were taken to Camp Lemonier, the U.S. military base in neighboring Djibouti.
Another U.S. official says that the rescue mission was prompted by a long-standing medical condition that had worsened during Buchanan’s captivity and “it was at a point where it became life-threatening.” The official did not identify the illness.
Few aid groups continue to operate inside Somalia because of the risks involved in conducting relief operations in one of the world most dangerous countries. The country has been ravaged by conflict for the past decade and an Islamic militant extremist group known as al-Shabab has been a focus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the country.
But, the U.S. official says, the Somalis who kidnapped Buchanan and Thisted were organized criminals and not members of al-Shabab. It’s possible they might have had ties to the pirates who operate in the waters off of East Africa prowling for commercial ships to hold for ransom, making the waters off Somalia some of the most dangerous in the world.
Buchanan joined DDG as a trainee in May 2010 and by January 2011 had become an education adviser for the group.
Andreas Camm, a spokesman for the Danish Refugee Council, told ABC News that Buchanan “has been very strong during this crisis when we have received proof of life. Our impression has been she has done very, very well and been a very, very strong person. And we were happy every time we heard of that.”
As for what kind of ransom the Somalis wanted from his group, Camm said, “We have told them, of course, that a humanitarian organization cannot pay.”