Family of killed hostage criticise failed US raid on Al-Qaeda in Yemen

A man, who identified himself as Luke Somers, speaks in this still image taken from video purportedly published by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). -- PHOTO: REUTERS
A man, who identified himself as Luke Somers, speaks in this still image taken from video purportedly published by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). -- PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (AFP, Reuters) - The British relatives of the US hostage killed by Al-Qaeda during a rescue attempt in Yemen criticised the raid Monday, saying they would have preferred negotiations.

The operation on Saturday came two days after 33-year-old Luke Somers' kidnappers had issued a video in which they threatened to kill him within 72 hours.

A South African captive, 57-year-old teacher Pierre Korkie, was also killed, just a day before he was due to be released under a negotiated deal. The US ambassador to South Africa said on Monday Washington did not know about the negotiations.

"I think the family would have like to have seen more attempts to solve the problem before it came to a crisis," Penny Bearman, the stepmother of British-born photojournalist Somers, told BBC radio.

Bearman also told The Times newspaper: "We are sure that Luke would have given support to the ongoing discussions (to secure his release) in Yemen rather than the conflict approach. There had been threats before that had not been carried out."

Somers' father Michael was "quite angry... because if there had not been a rescue attempt he would still be alive," she was quoted as saying.

But she added in her BBC interview: "We don't blame the American government for attempting to rescue him." "If they'd been able to pull him out we would have been singing their praises," she said.

Somers was kidnapped in September 2013 and so it was "quite surprising" that US President Barack Obama sanctioned the attempted rescue 15 months on.

She said his relatives were not given "any warning at all" about the raid. "We had no idea, it was a complete shock," she said.

Half-sister Lucy Somers, 25, said the photojournalist hoped his pictures would help resolve the political and military chaos in the Arabian Peninsula state.

"The tragedy of his death, and injustice of how he was used, must be undone by the warmth, strength and humanity of his images," she told The Times.

US Ambassador to South Africa Patrick Gaspard said Washington acted swiftly to free Somers because it had information that he was going to be killed by his captors.

Washington says Somers and Korkie were killed by their captors, members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

"We were unaware of negotiations for the release of Pierre Korkie and we were also not aware that Pierre Korkie was being held in the same space as Luke Somers," Gaspard told 702 talk radio.

Gift of the Givers, a relief group negotiating Korkie's release on behalf of his family, said the teacher had been due to be handed over on Sunday, hours after the raid.

US officials have said they were aware a second hostage was at the location but did not know that it was Korkie.

Gift of the Givers and Pierre's wife Yolande, who was released in January after being held with her husband, said they didn't hold the US responsible. "There is no accusation towards anybody. Mrs Korkie is not in a position to say they (US) were wrong," Korkie family spokesman Daan Nortier told Reuters. "Mrs Korkie, as a Christian, applies the biblical principle of forgiving ... even for his captors."

Korkie's body was due to be repatriated to South Africa by US authorities later on Monday, Nortier said.

Another 11 people, including a woman, a 10-year-old boy and a local Al-Qaeda leader, were also killed during the raid in the village of Dafaar in Shabwa province, a militant stronghold in southern Yemen.

Gift of the Givers spokesman Imtiaz Sooliman confirmed that Washington had not been informed about the negotiations for Korkie's release. "I don't judge them for making the raid or have any anger towards them. They were working in the best interests of their citizen," Sooliman told Reuters. "Any other government would do something similar."

AQAP, formed in 2006 by the merger of the Yemeni and Saudi wings of al Qaeda, has for years been seen by Washington as one of the militant movement's most dangerous branches.

Western governments fear advances in Yemen 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.

At least two more hostages are being held by the group.