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Obama praises Somalia rescue of hostage aid workers

January 25, 2012 |  6:35 am
Somalia

REPORTING FROM MOGADISHU, SOMALIA -- President Obama on Wednesday praised the U.S. military's dramatic helicopter rescue of two Western aid workers taken hostage by pirates.

But pirates in Somalia said they would take tougher action regarding American hostages in the future, to make sure the pirates were secure from similar raids.

The hostages, Jessica Buchanan, a 32-year-old American, and Poul Hagen Thisted, a 60-year-old Dane, both from the Danish Demining Group, were freed safely, officials said. Nine Somali hostage-takers were killed in the operation, and five others were wounded, according to witnesses.

Video: US military frees hostages in Somalia

The pair had been kidnapped in October in the central Somali town of Galkayo, which until then had been considered relatively safe for Westerners.

The rescue operation carried redemptive echoes of the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" episode in which 19 U.S. military personnel were killed in the Somali capital of Mogadishu after a helicopter raid that went wrong, an episode that still resonates strongly in the United States affects its policy on Somalia, according to analysts.

The pre-dawn raid was carried out by U.S. military helicopters and Navy SEALs operating out of an American base in the tiny East African nation of Djibouti, officials said. Witnesses said the operation took place after 2 a.m. and lasted about 15 minutes.

After the mission, officials said, the SEALs flew Buchanan and Thisted to the Djibouti base, Camp Lemonnier, where about 2,500 U.S. personnel are stationed.

Obama appeared to refer to the mission just before the State of the Union address Tuesday night when he pointed at Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and said, "Good job tonight."

In a statement early Wednesday, the president praised the SEALs for their courage and warned that the U.S. would not tolerate kidnappings of Americans.

"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," he said.

"Jessica Buchanan was selflessly serving her fellow human beings when she was taken hostage by criminals and pirates who showed no regard for her health and well-being.

"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."

However, Somalia analyst E.J. Hogendoorn of the International Crisis Group said the mission might increase the risks to other Western hostages in Somalia, including the crew of a fishing vessel, Briton Judith Telbut, two Spanish aid workers, two South African yachters and a Frenchman alleged to be an intelligence agent.

"Basically this is a typical kind of reaction-and-counter-reaction situation, where pirates evolve or adapt to the new tactics of Western powers. So it's unpredictable," he said.

"I think there will be a propensity to use violence, and the pirates will use more sophisticated securing techniques," Hogendoorn added. "Just a couple of days ago, pirates reportedly amputated the hand of the captain of a fishing boat to try to force the company to pay a ransom."

A pirate from the Somali town of Adado, near where the rescue took place, told The Times in a phone interview that pirates would be sure to keep U.S. hostages better secured in the future.

"This teaches us a lesson, and we shall deal with American hostages very strictly and securely," said the pirate, who gave his name only as Hashi.

"We are not afraid to die, and we will keep defending our waters from invaders," he said, referring to the Somali kidnappings of sea crews and seizures of their ships for ransom.

Hashi said he had spoken to pirates who survived the U.S. assault and that they reported guards at their compound were sleeping when the attack came.

"The attackers killed nine on the spot, wounded several others and took away five others alive," he said, information that couldn't be independently confirmed. "Nine men were brutally murdered on the spot with bullets in the face or head."

Abdi Qani Salad, who lives on the outskirts of Adado, said in a phone interview that he heard a gun battle and explosions at about 2:20 a.m.

"I heard the roar of helicopters close to our village, and a few minutes later there were repeated gunshots and sounds like explosions. The operation lasted less than a quarter of an hour.

"None of us went outside until dawn, when we found nine corpses and five wounded people," Salad said.

An Adado elder, Garaad Ismail Ahmed, told The Times in a phone interview that the criminals abducting aid workers who had come to help Somalis were bringing shame on the country.

"These young criminals are creating problems on land and sea. It is very shameful to kidnap foreigners who have come to help vulnerable people. As Somali elders, we welcome the punishment of all criminals who aggressively harm the aid workers. It is totally against Islam and Somali culture to harm or abduct those who are not fighting you directly," he said. 

Confirming the safe rescue of the hostages Wednesday, the Danish Refugee Council, of which the demining group is a part, asked journalists to respect the privacy of the rescued workers' families.

The October kidnapping was one of a series of abductions by Somali pirates in a bid to extort high ransoms, with Westerners fetching the highest prices. Several kidnappings occurred late last year in Kenya, Somalia's southern neighbor, triggering a Kenyan invasion in a bid to restore a stable government, an effort that continues to this day.

Western diplomats and aid workers have been using Galkayo as a base or entry point into Somalia, with diplomatic activity on the rise since the radical Islamic rebel group Al Shabab abandoned Mogadishu and retreated to its southern stronghold.

Mohamed Ahmed Alim, president of Galmudug state, where the rescue took place, congratulated those who carried out the mission. He said the Galmudug state welcomed the operation to free the hostages and hunt down violent criminals

"We congratulate those who carried out the operation to rescue the Danish Demining Group aid workers, and thank the soldiers who risked their lives to rescue these innocent people," he told reporters in the port town of Hobyo, which is reputed to be a major pirate base. "I am very happy today that the hostages will be united with their families soon."

Underscoring the growing dangers of operating from Galkayo, an American freelance journalist was kidnapped there Saturday.

-- Lutfi Sheriff Mohammed in Mogadishu and Robyn Dixon in Johannesburg, South Africa

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Photo: Poul Hagen Thisted and Jessica Buchanan. Credit: Danish Refugee Council.

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