U.S. defense officials say an American woman and a Danish man who were kidnapped last October in Somalia are safe, after being rescued by U.S. commandos in a daring operation northwest of the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
Pentagon officials say American forces swept into an encampment in the vicinity of the town of Cadaado, northwest of Mogadishu, and pulled American Jessica Buchanan and Poul Thisted, a Danish national, to safety.
Western officials said U.S. special forces arrived aboard helicopters early Wednesday. Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters the kidnappers were heavily armed.
“They had explosives nearby and there were very concrete plans for removing the kidnappers and placing them in detention,” said Little.
U.S. officials say that opportunity did not present itself. The raid lasted several hours and by the end of it, U.S. forces had killed nine suspected kidnappers. The Pentagon did not say whether there was an exchange of gunfire. No Americans were killed.
The kidnapped victims were working for a Danish aid agency when they were abducted by gunmen in October.
The raid began as President Barack Obama was preparing to give his State of the Union address Tuesday night in Washington. By the time the president approached the podium to begin his speech, he already had learned that the hostages had been safely retrieved.
Microphones overheard him praising U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as he entered the room.
“Good job tonight. Good job,” said Obama to Panetta.
Defense officials say the decision to carry out the raid came after getting word Buchanan’s health was deteriorating due to a pre-existing health condition. They did not say what that condition is. After her rescue, she was under the care of U.S. military medical personnel.
Defense officials did not disclose her location, but news reports said she was taken to a U.S. base in neighboring Djibouti.
The operation happened as the Pentagon prepared to release its new budget, which is expected to contain the first significant cuts since the September 11 attacks of 2001. The budget is expected to raise funding for special operations and unconventional warfare teams.
The Obama administration this month announced a new military strategy to create what it says will be a leaner, more agile force. The administration has also said it wants to focus more on Africa, where officials say the State Department-designated terrorist groups al-Shabab and al-Qaida are operating in Somalia.
Pentagon officials described the kidnappers killed in the Somalia raid as criminal suspects and gave no indication of whether they were part of a terrorist network.