MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) - Held captive since last fall, an ailing American woman and a Danish man are safely on their way home after a bold, dark-of-night rescue by U.S. Navy SEALs. The commandos slipped into a Somali encampment, shot and killed nine captors and whisked the hostages to freedom.
The raid's success was welcome news for the hostages and their families, for the military and for President Barack Obama, who was delivering his State of the Union speech as the mission was wrapping up Tuesday night. He did not mention it in his address but dropped a hint upon arriving in the House chamber by telling Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, "Good job tonight."
It was the second splashy SEAL Team 6 success in less than a year, following last May's killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
The SEALs apparently encountered some degree of resistance from the kidnappers at the encampment. One U.S. official said Wednesday that there was a firefight but the length and extent of the battle were unclear.
Pentagon spokesmen said they could not confirm a gun battle, although one defense official said it was likely that the SEALs killed the kidnappers rather than capture them because they encountered armed resistance or the threat of resistance.
The Pentagon was mostly tight-lipped about details on Wednesday, citing a need to preserve the secrecy that can give SEALs and other special operations forces an edge against the terrorists, criminals and others they are ordered to kill or capture around the world under hazardous and often hostile conditions.
One official said the SEALs parachuted from U.S. Air Force aircraft before moving on foot, apparently undetected, to the outdoor encampment where they found American Jessica Buchanan, 32, and Poul Hagen Thisted, a 60-year-old Dane, who had been kidnapped in Somalia last fall. The raid happened near the town of Adado.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said the captors were heavily armed and had "explosives nearby" when the rescuers arrived on the scene, but he was not more specific. He declined to say whether there was an exchange of gunfire and would not provide any further details about how the rescue was completed beyond saying all of the captors were killed by the Americans.
The American raiders caught the kidnappers as they were sleeping after having chewed the narcotic leaf qat for much of the evening, a pirate who gave his name as Bile Hussein told The Associated Press by phone. Hussein said he was not present at the site but had spoken with other pirates who were, and that they told him nine pirates had been killed in the raid and three were "taken away."
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. John Kirby, said U.S. officials could not confirm that the kidnappers were engaged in piracy. He referred to them simply as "criminals."
Little said the decision to go ahead with the rescue was prompted in part by rising concern about the medical condition of Buchanan. He said he could not be specific without violating her privacy but did say U.S. officials had reason to believe her condition could be life-threatening. Mary Ann Olsen, an official with the Danish Refugee Council, which employed Buchanan and Thisted in de-mining efforts in Somalia, said Buchanan was "not that ill" but needed medicine.
Danish Foreign Minister Villy Soevndal told Denmark's TV2 channel, "One of the hostages has a disease that was very serious and that had to be solved."
U.S. officials "within the last week or so" had collected enough information to "connect the dots" that led Obama to authorize the mission on Monday, Little said.
A Western official said the rescuers and the freed hostages flew by helicopter to Camp Lemonnier in the nearby Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti.
Obama, Panetta and Army Gen. Carter Ham all praised the skill and courage of the SEALs and expressed gratitude for the safe return of the hostages.
"We should remember that Mrs. Buchanan and Mr. Thisted were working to protect the people of Somalia when they were violently kidnapped," said Ham, head of Africa Command. "It is my hope that all those who work in Somalia for the betterment of the Somali people can be free from the dangers of violent criminals."
Minutes after Obama completed his State of the Union address he was on the phone with Buchanan's father to tell him his daughter was safe.
"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," Obama said in a statement released by the White House on Wednesday.
"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."