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U.S. helicopter raid frees two aid workers from Somali pirates

January 25, 2012 |  1:36 am
U.S. helicopter raid frees two aid workers from Somali pirates

REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- U.S. military forces carried out a dramatic helicopter rescue overnight in Somalia, freeing two Western aid workers taken hostage by pirates.

Jessica Buchanan, a 32-year-old American, and Poul Hagen Thisted, a 60-year-old Dane, both from the Danish Demining Group had been kidnapped in October in the central Somali town of Galkayo, which until then had been considered relatively safe for Westerners.

Early Wednesday, the Danish Refugee Council, of which the demining group is a part, confirmed the successful rescue of the two aid workers.

The overnight 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. After the mission, they returned to the Djibouti base with the two, officials said.

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

Witnesses reported a gun battle that left several pirates dead, according to news agencies. Both hostages were unharmed in the rescue.

The Associated Press reported that Bilal Hussein, a pirate, said he had been informed by others at the scene that nine pirates has been killed.

A second pirate, Ahmed Hashi, said two helicopters attacked at about 2 a.m., targeting a pirate compound about 12 miles north of the Somali town of Adow.

The October kidnapping of the two aid workers was one of a series of abductions of Westerners by Somali pirates in a bid to extort high ransoms. 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 the capital, Mogadishu, and retreated to its southern stronghold.

Underscoring the growing dangers of operating from Galkayo, an American engineer was kidnapped there Saturday. Many other hostages remain in Somalia, including a British tourist, several other aid workers, shipping crews and others.

-- Robyn Dixon


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