US special forces swooped into Somalia early Wednesday to rescue two aid workers, an American woman and a Danish man held hostage for the past three months, security officials said Wednesday.
US Navy SEALs aboard at least six military helicopters flew in low over central Somalia to surprise the kidnappers in a pre-dawn raid, killing in a gunbattle, several officials said.
The two hostages, American Jessica Buchanan and Poul Thisted, a Dane, who worked for the Danish Refugee Council Demining Group, were unharmed and flown to safety, their employer said.
“The two DDG (Danish Demining Group) workers were released forcefully… we are getting information that at least six military helicopters attacked early this morning,” said Mohamed Nur, a local security official, adding that the attack was carried out by the US military.
A regional security source told AFP the operation was carried out elite commandos from the US Navy SEAls. US officials were not immediately available for comment.
“There was a heavy shooting that left several of the pirates dead,” Nur said.
“The reports we have is that the freed hostages were flown to Djibouti by their rescuers,” he added, referring to the main US military base in the region.
Buchanan and Thisted were working for the demining unit in central Somalia’s semi-autonomous Galmudug region when they were seized by gunmen on October 25.
The kidnappings were the latest in a string of abductions by armed gangs from the war-torn nation, one of the world’s most dangerous regions for aid workers.
Some pirate gangs have branched out to land-based kidnappings, due both to increased security on ships as well as long periods of monsoon weather making seas rough to launch a hijack.
Pirates are also believed to be behind the kidnapping of an American-German writer Michael Scott Moore, who was taken by gunmen from Galmadug on Saturday.
In the raid to rescue them, which took place in remote scrubland between the notorious pirate regions of Hobyo and Adado in central Somalia, at least eight of the kidnappers were killed, said one local official.
“We have collected dead bodies of eight pirates from the scene of the attack, and we understand that five others were arrested were taken by the rescuers,” said Abduali Moalim, an official in the Adado administration.
“The raid took place before dawn, and it looks that very professional soldiers were involved in the attack as it lasted for less than an hour,” he added.
The Danish Refugee Council said in a statement that both freed hostages were “unharmed and at a safe location” and “are on their way to be reunited with their families.”
Witnesses said the foreign soldiers took control of Galkayo airport during the raid with several support aircraft landing there.
One witness, Abdulahi Isa, said he saw at least five helicopters flying over the town on Tuesday night.
“Some of the military helicopters landed at Galkayo airport, and people were stopped from going near there,” said Ahmed Dini, another witness.
A lack of effective central government since Somalia plunged into civil war two decades ago has allowed militias to flourish, with Islamist insurgents and pirate gangs ruling mini-fiefdoms.