American, South African hostages killed in Yemen

December 06, 2014 03:01 pm | Updated April 21, 2016 05:21 am IST - SANA’A

In this February 11, 2013 photo, Luke Somers, 33, an American photojournalist who was kidnapped over a year ago by al-Qaeda, poses for a picture during a parade marking the second anniversary of the revolution in Sana'a, Yemen. His said on Saturday that he was killed in a failed rescue attempt in Yemen.

In this February 11, 2013 photo, Luke Somers, 33, an American photojournalist who was kidnapped over a year ago by al-Qaeda, poses for a picture during a parade marking the second anniversary of the revolution in Sana'a, Yemen. His said on Saturday that he was killed in a failed rescue attempt in Yemen.

An American photojournalist and a South African aid worker held by al-Qaeda militants in Yemen have been killed in a failed U.S. rescue attempt, authorities said on Saturday.

Speaking in Afghanistan, U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said Luke Somers “and a second non-U.S. citizen hostage were murdered” by al-Qaeda militants during the raid.

The aid group Gift of Givers later identified the second hostage as South African teacher Pierre Korkie, who the group said was to be released on Sunday. They said he was to be flown out of Yemen “under diplomatic cover, then to meet with family members in a ‘safe’ country, (and) fly to South Africa.”

Mr. Hagel said, “Yesterday by the order of the President of the United States, U.S. special operations forces conducted a mission in Yemen to rescue a U.S. citizen Luke Somers and any other foreign nationals held hostage with him.

“There were compelling reasons to believe Somers’ life was in imminent danger.”

Lucy Somers, the photojournalist’s sister, told The Associated Press that she and her father learned of her 33-year-old brother’s death from FBI agents at 5 a.m. GMT (10.30 a.m. IST) on Saturday.

“We ask that all of Luke’s family members be allowed to mourn in peace,” Ms. Lucy Somers said from London.

In Yemen, a top security official said al-Qaeda militants planned to kill Luke Somers on Saturday.

Yemen’s national security chief, Maj. Gen. Ali al-Ahmadi, made the comments on Saturday at a security conference in Manama, Bahrain.

Maj. Gen. Al-Ahmadi said, “Al-Qaeda promised to conduct the execution (of Luke Somers) today so there was an attempt to save them but unfortunately they shot the hostage before or during the attack. He was freed but unfortunately he was dead.”

Yemen’s local al-Qaeda branch, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, posted a video on Thursday that showed Luke Somers, threatening to kill him in three days if the United States didn’t meet the group’s demands, which weren’t specified. He was kidnapped in September 2013 from Sana’a.

The news of the failed rescue comes after a suspected U.S. drone strike in Yemen killed nine alleged al-Qaeda militants early Saturday, a Yemeni security official said before news of Luke Somers’ death. The drone struck at dawn in Yemen’s southern Shabwa Province, hitting a suspected militant hideout, the official said. The official did not elaborate and spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorised to brief journalists.

Later on Saturday, tribal leaders said they saw helicopters flying over an area called Wadi Abdan in Shabwa Province.

American authorities rarely discuss their drone strike campaign in Yemen. The strikes are despised by many in Yemen due to civilian casualties, legitimising for many the attacks on American interests. At least six suspected militants were killed in an airstrike in the same Province last month.

Before her brother’s death, Lucy Somers released an online video describing him as a romantic who “always believes the best in people.” She ended with the plea: “Please let him live.”

In a statement, Luke Somers’ father, Michael, also called his son “a good friend of Yemen and the Yemeni people” and asked for his safe release.

Korkie was kidnapped in the Yemeni city of Taiz in May, along with his wife Yolande. His wife later was released returned to South Africa. A non-governmental group, Gift of the Givers, helped mediate her release. Those close to Korkie said al-Qaeda militants demanded a $3 million ransom for his release.

“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,” Gift of Givers said in a statement on Saturday. “A team of Abyan leaders met in Aden this morning and were preparing the final security and logistical arrangements, related to hostage release mechanisms, to bring Pierre to safety and freedom. 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.’”

In a statement on Thursday, Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby acknowledged for the first time that a mysterious U.S. raid last month had sought to rescue Luke Somers but that he turned out not to be at the site. The U.S. considers Yemen’s al-Qaeda branch to be the world’s most dangerous arm of the group as it has been linked to several failed attacks on the U.S. homeland.

Rear Adm. Kirby did not elaborate on the joint U.S-Yemeni operation to free Luke Somers, saying details remained classified. However, officials have said the raid targeted a remote al-Qaeda safe haven in a desert region near the Saudi border. Eight captives including Yemenis, a Saudi and an Ethiopian were freed. Luke Somers, a Briton and four others had been moved days earlier.

Luke Somers was kidnapped in September 2013 as he left a supermarket in Sana’a, said Fakhri al-Arashi, chief editor of the National Yemen , where Somers worked as a copy editor and a freelance photographer during the 2011 uprising in Yemen.

Luke Somers, who was born in Britain, earned a bachelor’s degree in creative writing while attending Beloit College in Wisconsin from 2004 through 2007.

“He really wanted to understand the world,” said Shawn Gillen, an English professor and chairman of Beloit College’s journalism programme who had Luke Somers as a student.

Fuad al-Kadas, who called Luke Somers one of his best friends, said Luke Somers spent time in Egypt before finding work in Yemen. Luke Somers started teaching English at a Yemen school but quickly established himself as a one of the few foreign photographers in the country, he said.

“He is a great man with a kind heart who really loves the Yemeni people and the country,” Mr. al-Kadas wrote in an email from Yemen. He said he last saw Luke Somers the day before he was kidnapped.

“He was so dedicated in trying to help change Yemen’s future, to do good things for the people that he didn’t leave the country his entire time here,” Mr. al-Kadas wrote.

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