English/American Photo-Journalist Luke Somers.
The American freelance photographer kidnapped by Al Qaeda militants in Yemen in 2013 was ‘murdered’ Friday during a U.S. special operations rescue mission inside the country after it was learned that his life was in imminent danger, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in a statement.
Luke Somers was still alive, but badly injured when the team reached him, a Yemeni national security official told Fox News. The official said Somers was shot by militants. None of the special forces members were injured.
Hagel said in the statement that the rescue bid was conducted in partnership with the Yemen’s government and its security forces.Ten militants were killed between the rescue attempt and the drone strike prior to the mission, the Yemeni official confirmed.
South African hostage Pierre Korkie was the other hostage killed in the operation, the Gift of the Givers, a South African aid group confirmed.
President Obama, who ordered the mission, released a statement early Saturday morning condemning the “barbaric murder” of Somers.
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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 12 a.m. ET Saturday.
“We ask that all of Luke’s family members be allowed to mourn in peace,” Lucy Somers said from London.
Yemen’s national security chief, Maj. Gen. Ali al-Ahmadi, said the militants planned to kill Luke Somers on Saturday.
“Al Qaeda promised to conduct the execution (of Somers) today so there was an attempt to save them but unfortunately they shot the hostage before or during the attack,” al-Ahmadi said at a conference in Manama, Bahrain. “He was freed but unfortunately he was dead.”
Yemen’s local Al Qaeda branch, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, posted a video Thursday that showed 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 Sanaa.
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 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 authorized to brief journalists.
Later 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, legitimizing 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, 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 2013, 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-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 Qaeda tomorrow,” Gift of Givers said in a statement 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 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 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.
Kirby did not elaborate on the joint U.S-Yemeni operation to free 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. Somers, a Briton and four others had been moved days earlier.
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.
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 Gillen as a student.
The Associated Press contributed to this report