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American Hostage In Yemen Killed In Failed Rescue Attempt

In this 2013 photo, Luke Somers, 33, an American photojournalist who was kidnapped over a year ago by al-Qaida, poses for a picture during a parade marking the second anniversary of the revolution in Sanaa, Yemen.
Hani Mohammed
In this 2013 photo, Luke Somers, 33, an American photojournalist who was kidnapped over a year ago by al-Qaida, poses for a picture during a parade marking the second anniversary of the revolution in Sanaa, Yemen.

Updated at 12:30 p.m. ET

American journalist Luke Somers, held captive by militants from al-Qaida's branch in Yemen for more than a year, has been killed by his captors during a failed U.S. rescue attempt.

A South African held along with Somers was also killed.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel confirmed Somers' death and said the U.S. had launched the rescue attempt because it had compelling reasons to believe that the American's life was in danger. Hagel, who arrived in Kabul on an unannounced visit Saturday, told reporters that Somers was "murdered" by terrorists.

"Both Mr. Somers and a second non-U.S. citizen hostage were murdered by [al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula] terrorists during the course of the operation," Hagel said in a separate statement later. "On behalf of the men and women of the U.S. armed forces, I extend our condolences, thoughts, and prayers to their families and loved ones."

The defense secretary says the rescue mission was conducted in partnership with the government of Yemen.

NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, says SEAL Team 6, the same unit that conducted the successful Osama bin Laden raid, supported by several helicopters, U.S. support aircraft and attack and surveillance drones, descended on a remote compound of several mud houses where British-born Somers,33 and another hostage, Pierre Korkie of South Africa, were being held.

Tom says noises at the compound alerting the captors to the SEAL team's presence and allowed them time to shoot the two hostages. He says a number of al-Qaida militants were killed in the raid and that no U.S. military personnel were injured.

The hostages were retrieved but badly wounded. They were taken to a U.S. Navy ship in the region, where they were pronounced dead.

It was the second failed attempt in recent weeks to snatch Somers from his captors. As we reported on Thursday, the Pentagon acknowledged that it had also tried last month but that Somers was not at the target location. That news came on the same day that a video surfaced in which the kidnappers threatened to kill Somers within 72 hours.

Somers, a copy editor and freelance photographer who worked for the National Yemen, was kidnapped as he left a supermarket in Sanaa, Yemen's capital, in 2013, Chief Editor Fakhri al-Arashi told the AP.

President Obama released a statement strongly condemning the "barbaric murder" of Somers and offered condolences to his family. He also said a non-U.S. citizen hostage was killed in the rescue attempt. The statement continues:

"Since his capture, the United States has been using every tool at our disposal to secure his release. Earlier this week, a video released by his terrorist captors announced that Luke would be killed within 72 hours. Other information also indicated that Luke's life was in imminent danger. Based on this assessment, and as soon as there was reliable intelligence and an operational plan, I authorized a rescue attempt yesterday. I also authorized the rescue of any other hostages held in the same location as Luke."

The president said he was "grateful to the U.S. forces who carried out this mission as well as the previous attempt to rescue Luke, and to the dedicated intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic professionals who supported their efforts."

Maj. Gen. Ali al-Ahmadi, Yemen's national security chief, was quoted by the AP as saying the kidnappers planned to kill Somers on Saturday, prompting the joint mission.

"Al-Qaida 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, according to AP.

The Wall Street Journal, quoting friends of Somers, writes that he "was passionate" about Yemen.

He "had just begun a career as a photojournalist in 2011 as the Arab Spring protests swept the region and shook the capital, San'a. Mr. Somers first arrived to Yemen in 2010 after living in Egypt and Morocco, teaching English before turning his hobby of photography into a professional endeavor," WSJ said.

"Mr. Somers traveled extensively throughout the country and would stroll through San'a at night despite a rise in kidnappings of foreign aid workers and journalists," according to the newspaper. "He would frequently eat at the same inexpensive restaurant just across the street from a supermarket, ordering the bean dishes of hummus and foul. What extra money Mr. Somers had he spent on camera equipment, friends say."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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