Two hostages, including South African Pierre Korkie, were killed during a rescue attempt by American forces in Yemen on Saturday.
US special forces raided the village of Dafaar in Shabwa province, a militant stronghold in southern Yemen, shortly after midnight on Saturday, killing several members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
American journalist Luke Somers, 33, and South African teacher Pierre Korkie, 56, were shot and killed by their captors during the raid intended to free them, US officials said.
On Saturday the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) said it was deeply saddened to learn of Korkie’s death. He was taken hostage with his wife Yolande in mid-2013, but Yolande was released in January this year after an intervention by the South African Government and the NGO, Gift of the Givers, together with the Yemeni Government and other role-players.
Gift of the Givers said that Korkie was due to be released on Sunday. No ransom was paid for Korkie as his kidnappers eventually relented on an earlier demand for $3 million, Gift of the Givers said.
“Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane would like to express the South African Government’s firm and unconditional condemnation of all forms of terrorism that invariably result in the senseless suffering and loss of innocent lives,” DIRCO said.
South Africa does not want to assign blame for Korkie’s death, government spokesman Nelson Kgwete said on local television, when asked if Pretoria blamed the United States while Yolande spoke of forgiveness. “So today we choose to forgive. We choose to love. We choose to rejoice in the memories of Pierre and keep him alive in our hearts,” she said in a statement.
Korkie’s body is expected to arrive in South Africa today. A woman, a 10-year-old boy and a local al Qaeda leader were among at least 11 people killed alongside the two hostages. Apart from the woman and the boy, reports on social media feeds of known militants said an AQAP commander and two members of the group were killed. Six other members of the same tribe also died, the reports said, although they could not be immediately verified.
The commander, identified as Jamal Mubarak al-Hard al-Daghari al-Awlaki, appeared to be the same person as Mubarak al-Harad, named by the Yemen Defence Ministry on Saturday as the leader of an AQAP group.
Several of those said by militants to have died were from the Daghari and Awlaki families, important tribes in Shabwa province. Yemen’s government said on Saturday the hostages were being held in the house of a man named Saeed al-Daghari.
As special forces battled al Qaeda militants in the house, kidnappers in another building nearby shot the two hostages, a local man who identified himself as Jamal said.
U.S. officials have said the raid was carried out by U.S. forces alone, but Yemen’s government and local residents said Yemeni forces also participated.
A U.S. defense official said about 40 U.S. special forces troops, flown in by tilt-rotor CV-22 Osprey aircraft, had advanced to within 100 meters (yards) of the walled compound where the hostages were held before the defenders were alerted and a firefight started.
“Before the gunshots were heard, very strong floodlights turned the night into daylight, and then we heard loud explosions,” Jamal told Reuters. “The soldiers were calling on the house’s inhabitants to surrender and the speaker was clearly a Yemeni soldier,” he added.
Another witness, named Abdullah, said the Yemeni army had blocked access to the area before the raid began.
“When the forces withdrew, we found lots of bloodstains, but did not know if those were of the soldiers or the hostages,” Abdullah said.
U.S. officials said they knew Somers was at the location, partly because of information gleaned during the earlier rescue attempt, and they were aware that a second hostage was there but did not know in advance who it was.
As the fight began, an al Qaeda guard darted inside the compound and then exited through the back. Gunfire was heard. That’s when American officials believe Somers and Korkie were shot.
They were each shot several times, said the U.S. officials, who declined to be identified. The men were treated by medics but one died during the flight out and another aboard a U.S. ship. No U.S. troops were hurt, they said. The raid lasted about 30 minutes.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the operation, the second attempt to free Somers in 10 days, had only been approved because of information that the American’s life was in imminent danger.
Abdel-Razaq al-Jamal, a Yemeni journalist who specialises in covering Islamist militants, said AQAP may have originally intended to ransom Somers as well, but appeared to have been angered by the earlier rescue attempt on November 25. “I don’t think this marks a change in position by al Qaeda,” Jamal told Reuters.
There was no new information about three other hostages, a Briton, a Turk and a Yemeni, who had previously been held alongside Somers and Korkie, a Yemeni security official said.
A senior U.S. official said Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi had given his support for Saturday’s operation, which a U.S. official said took place at 1 a.m. local time.
Yemen’s government issued a different account of the incident. It said in a statement carried on state media that its security forces had led the raid. It said the security forces had surrounded the house and called on the kidnappers to surrender, but they instead shot the hostages.
That led to an assault on the building in which four Yemeni security officers were also wounded, it said.
AQAP, formed in 2006 by the merger of the Yemeni and Saudi branches of the network, has for years been seen by Washington as one of the movement’s most dangerous branches.
Western governments fear advances by Shi’ite Muslim Houthi fighters with links to Iran have bolstered support among Yemeni Sunnis for AQAP, which has established itself in parts of Yemen, including Shabwa where the raid took place.
However, since Islamic State in Syria and Iraq began distributing films of its militants beheading Western hostages, the focus on AQAP, which has traditionally used hostage-taking as a way to raise funds, had diminished until now.
The Yemen-based group, loyal to the wider al Qaeda organisation founded by Osama bin Laden, has denounced Islamic State, but Western and Gulf sources say there may be operational connections between the two.
“AQAP and Daesh (Islamic State) are essentially the same organisation but have different methods of execution and tactics,” a senior Yemeni intelligence official said.