US, South African Al-Qaeda hostages are killed in Yemen rescue bid

JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - An American and a South African were killed on Saturday as US forces tried to free them from Al-Qaeda in Yemen, with President Barack Obama accusing the militants of “barbaric murder”.

Obama said he had authorised the joint attempt involving US special forces to rescue American photojournalist Luke Somers because his life was believed to be “in imminent danger”.

South African teacher Pierre Korkie was also killed in the raid, which came just a day before he was due to be freed after more than a year in captivity, according to a charity that had been negotiating his release.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had on Thursday threatened to execute Somers, 33, who was kidnapped more than a year ago in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, within three days if Washington failed to meet unspecified demands.

“The callous disregard for Luke’s life is more proof of the depths of AQAP’s depravity, and further reason why the world must never cease in seeking to defeat their evil ideology,” Obama said in a statement.

Korkie was seized by Al-Qaeda in May 2013 in the city of Taez. He had worked as a teacher in Yemen for four years with his wife Yolande, who was freed in January following mediation by a charity.

The Gift of the Givers said that Korkie had also been on the brink of release and logistical arrangements had already been put in place to fly him out of Yemen under diplomatic cover after negotiations.

“The psychological and emotional devastation to Yolande and her family will be compounded by the knowledge that Pierre was to be released by Al-Qaeda tomorrow (Sunday),” it said.

“It is even more tragic that the words we used in a conversation with Yolande at 5.59 this morning was ‘the wait is almost over’.” Ten militants were killed in the joint operation in Shabwa province in southeast Yemen, Yemen’s defence ministry said.

A tribal leader said soldiers were seen parachuting into the area and residents reported heavy clashes.

The mission “was extremely well executed", US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said during a visit to Kabul.

“It was extremely dangerous and complicated,” he added. “Like always with these operations, there is risk.”

‘DESPICABLE TERRORIST ORGANISATION’

Obama said that since Somers was abducted 15 months ago, Washington had been using “every tool at our disposal” to try to secure his release.

“Luke was a photojournalist who sought through his images to convey the lives of Yemenis to the outside world,” Obama added.

“He came to Yemen in peace and was held against his will and threatened by a despicable terrorist organisation.” Somers’s brother Jordan recently described him as a “good person", and said he did not know why he was taken hostage.

“He’s a good person and he’s only been trying to do good things for the Yemeni population,” Jordan said in a video earlier this week with his mother Paula.

The United States has said that American and Yemeni forces had already tried unsuccessfully to rescue Somers last month.

According to Yemen’s defence ministry, Al-Qaeda moved hostages, including the US journalist, a Briton and a South African, days before that joint raid in southeastern Hadramawt province.

The whereabouts of the Briton are unknown.

Yemeni officials said eight other hostages were freed in the earlier operation.

The United States has a long-standing policy of not negotiating with hostage-takers or paying ransoms.

Yemen is a key US ally in the fight against Al-Qaeda, allowing Washington to conduct a long-standing drone war against the group on its territory.

AQAP is considered by Washington to be the most dangerous affiliate of Al-Qaeda.

The execution threat by AQAP followed the murder of five Western hostages since August by the Islamic State group that controls parts of Syria and Iraq.

Two US journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, American aid worker Peter Kassig and British aid workers Alan Henning and David Haines were all beheaded.

Al-Qaeda has exploited instability in impoverished Yemen since a 2011 uprising forced president Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.

In recent years there has been a growing number of abductions in Yemen by Al-Qaeda which remains active in the south and east despite several campaigns by government forces.