An American photojournalist and a South African teacher were killed during a U.S.-led rescue attempt on Saturday in Yemen.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Saturday that photojournalist Luke Somers and teacher Pierre Korkie were killed by their captors, members of the terrorist group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, during the rescue mission conducted by U.S. and Yemeni forces in the southern province of Shabwa. Both men had been held hostage for more than a year.
Hagel expressed his condolences to the families of both Somers and Korkie.
"Our prayers and thoughts go out to the Somers family," he said. "There was also another hostage who was also killed in that attempted rescue, and our prayers and thoughts go out to all the families involved."
Hagel said several terrorists were also killed during the rescue attempt, which he said was made because there were "compelling reasons to believe Somers' life was in imminent danger."
U.S. President Barack Obama condemned what he called the "barbaric murder" of Somers "at the hands of al-Qaida terrorists." He said he authorized the rescue attempt Friday for Somers and "any other hostages held in the same location."
Hagel said the 33-year-old Somers had been under an execution threat since Thursday.
The defense secretary praised those who tried to carry out the rescue mission, saying it was "extremely well-executed."
"I do think, though, that this is further evidence of America's continued commitment to always find its American hostages no matter where they are and make every effort to get those hostages returned to the United States," said Hagel. "This mission which there will be more detail forthcoming was extremely well-executed. It was a very dangerous and complicated mission. But like always in these efforts there's risk."
A senior U.S. official who gave reporters an account of the rescue mission said the gunmen holding Somers and Korkie shot them after realizing the mission was underway. The official said American commandos recovered both men, noting that one died on the helicopter ride to a U.S. naval ship (USS Makin Island) off the Yemeni coast, and that the other died after reaching the vessel.
South Africa's government gave no immediate comment on Korkie's death. His charity, the Gift of the Givers, said his death came a day before he was due to be freed.
Korkie and his wife, hospital worker Yolande Korkie, had moved from Bloemfontein, South Africa, to Yemen in May 2013. Days later they both were abducted outside a hotel in Taiz, Yemen.
Yolande was freed in January of this year after Gift of the Givers helped negotiate her release. The kidnappers had demanded $3 million in exchange for Pierre Korkie's freedom.
A team was meeting in Aden Saturday morning on the final security and logistical arrangements for Korkie's release, the Gift of the Givers group said, when news came of the failed rescue attempt. A statement said Yolande Korkie and her family went through "psychological and emotional devastation."
Hagel said further details of the "dangerous and complicated" attempt to rescue Korkie and Somers would be released later.
"It was a very dangerous and complicated mission. But like always in these efforts, there is risk," Hagel said.
The South African Press Agency reported that the founder of the Gift of the Givers group, Imtiaz Sooliman, said those involved were not blaming the United States for Korkie's death.
Earlier Saturday, Yemeni officials said a suspected U.S. drone strike targeted an area in the southern Shabwa province, killing nine al-Qaida militants.
It was not immediately clear whether the strike was part of the American rescue for Somers who was kidnapped last year in Sana'a by AQAP.
U.S. officials have confirmed that American commandos failed to rescue Somers in Yemen recently because he was not at the targeted site.
The AQAP militant group released a video of Somers Thursday in which it said it would kill the 33-year-old photojournalist if the U.S. government did not meet its unspecified demands within three days. In the video, a man who said he is Somers said he is certain his life is in danger.
In the video, a militant warned the United States of what he called "any other foolish action," but it was not clear if that was a reference to the raid or to the ongoing U.S. drone strikes against AQAP. The strikes have targeted militants but also led to civilian casualties.
AQAP is one of the most active branches of al-Qaida, and militants have launched attacks from Yemen against the West, including the failed attempt to blow up a U.S.-bound aircraft in 2009.
Al-Qaida and its affiliates are believed to make tens of millions of dollars annually in ransom for hostages and have condemned the widely publicized hostage killings by its rival, the Islamic State.
Gillian Parker contributed to this report from Johannesburg