Somers and South African Pierre Korkie died after U.S. forces attempted to rescue them from an al-Qaida militant group

By Associated Press
Updated December 06, 2014 11:15 AM
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Credit: Jaber Ahmad Ghrab/AP

An American photojournalist and a South African teacher held by al-Qaida militants in Yemen were killed Saturday during a U.S.-led rescue operation that President Barack Obama said he ordered because of “imminent danger” to the U.S. hostage.

U.S. officials believe the militants shot the two men during a firefight, and that both were alive when American forces pulled them from a building on the group’s compound and got them aboard an aircraft, where medical teams operated on them during a short flight to the USS Makin Island, a Navy ship in the region.

South African Pierre Korkie is believed to have died during the flight, while American Luke Somers died on the ship, according to senior U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the information had yet to be approved for release.

About 40 U.S. special operations forces were part of the mission, according to the U.S. officials. The rescuers, backed by Yemeni ground forces, got within 100 meters of the compound in southern Shabwa province when they were spotted by the militants, and the skirmish ensued.

The second rescue attempt in less than two weeks to free Somers was prompted by a video posted online earlier in the week in which al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula threatened to kill Somers within 72 hours.

But an aid group helping negotiate Korkie’s release said he was to be freed Sunday and his wife was told that “the wait is almost over.”

In a statement, Obama did not address Korkie by name, only saying he “authorized the rescue of any other hostages held in the same location as Luke.” The South African government did not immediately comment on Korkie’s death.

Information “indicated that Luke’s life was in imminent danger,” Obama said. “Based on this assessment, and as soon as there was reliable intelligence and an operational plan, I authorized a rescue attempt.”

Officials said Obama authorized the rescue mission Friday morning and was informed that evening about the outcome.

His Family Mourns

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 early Saturday morning.

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

Somers was kidnapped in September 2013 as he left a supermarket in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, 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.

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, Somers’s 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 2013, along with his wife, Yolande. Militants later released her after a nongovernmental group, Gift of the Givers, helped negotiate for her freedom. Those close to Korkie said al-Qaida 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-Qaida tomorrow,” Gift of Givers said in a statement Saturday.

A Kind Heart

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 program who had Somers as a student.

Fuad Al Kadas, who called Somers one of his best friends, said Somers spent time in Egypt before finding work in Yemen. 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,” Al Kadas wrote in an email from Yemen. He said he last saw Somers the day before Somers 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,” Al Kadas wrote.

Al-Arashi, his editor at the National Yemen, recalled a moment when Somers edited a story on other hostages held in the country.

“He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t want to be a hostage,’ ” al-Arashi said. ” ‘I don’t want to be kidnapped.’ ”