Questions swirl over failed Yemen hostage rescue mission
Questions are mounting over a botched US rescue mission in Yemen that left one US hostage and another South African hostage dead, the day before he was expected to be released by his Al-Qaeda captors.
The United States admitted it was “absolutely unaware” that a South African charity had negotiated 56-year-old teacher Pierre Korkie’s release — or even that he was being held at the same compound as American photojournalist Luke Somers.
The stepmother of 33-year-old Somers has criticised the mission that should have saved his life, saying “if there had not been a rescue attempt he would still be alive”.
Korkie and Somers were shot by Al-Qaeda militants Saturday when the US commandos were discovered about 100 metres (yards) from the compound where they were being held.
Korkie and his wife Yolande were abducted in May 2013 in Yemen’s second city of Taiz by members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, while Somers was seized in the capital Sanaa four months later.
Yolande was released in January after protracted negotiations led by South African charity Gift of the Givers.
But Korkie remained captive for another 11 months and his kidnappers demanded a ransom of $3 million (2.2 million euros).
His ordeal was due to end Saturday, said Gift of the Givers, claiming they had finally secured Korkie’s release at a reduced “settlement fee” of $200,000 after months of negotiating with Al-Qaeda through tribal leaders in the region.
– ‘Take the risk’ –
The US insists it was not informed of the development.
“The United States was not aware of the progress of the negotiations between the Gift of the Givers and the Yemeni hostage takers, nor of a promise for Pierre Korkie’s release,” the US embassy in Pretoria said in a statement Monday.
“Moreover, at no time was it apparent that Pierre Korkie was being held in the same space as the American photojournalist Luke Somers. We moved with the information available in an attempt to save lives.”
The US intervention came after Somers’ captors released a video last week threatening to execute him.
“We had indications, very good indications, that they were going to murder Mr Somers perhaps as early as the next day,” a senior US defence official said Saturday.
“It was either act now and take the risk, or let that deadline pass. And no one was willing to do that.”
But Somers’ family said they would have preferred a negotiated approach.
Speaking to The Times of London, the British-born photographer’s stepmother Penny Bearman said: “We are sure that Luke would have given support to the ongoing discussions (to secure his release) in Yemen rather than the conflict approach. There had been threats before that had not been carried out.”
Speaking from Afghanistan Sunday, Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel told reporters the US has no plans to review how it conducts rescue operations, despite Saturday’s mission being the latest in a series of failed attempts.
“Our process is about as thorough as there can be,” he said. “Is it imperfect? Yes. Is there risk? Yes.
“But we start with the fact that we have an American that’s being held hostage and that American’s life is in danger. That’s where we start.”
At a press conference Saturday, Gift of the Givers founder Imtiaz Sooliman said that, after seeing the Somers video, he had a premonition Korkie could be killed should the US attempt a rescue mission.
“I’m not blaming them,” he added. “The Americans have their own hostages and their own interests… There’s no bad feeling towards anyone.”
A spokesman for South Africa’s department of international relations and cooperation refused to be drawn on whether or not Gift of the Givers informed them of Korkie’s imminent release either.
“We’re trying to bring closure to the matter,” Nelson Kgwete told AFP. “The family requested that finger-pointing not be done.”
But South Africa’s official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has urged Pretoria to “engage with American representatives to get to the bottom of the circumstances that led to Mr Korkie’s death”.
“There was clearly a lack of intelligence,” DA lawmaker Stevens Mokgalapa told AFP. “The left hand didn’t know what the right was doing.”
Still, he stopped short of censuring the Americans.
“It’s a tragedy that happened. You can’t point fingers. They were all trying to do the same thing — the Americans militarily and Gift of the Givers diplomatically — to get the hostages out of Yemen.”
The sentiment resonated throughout a statement released by Yolande Korkie Saturday.
“How can we, with God’s help, respond appropriately to this painful hour?” she wrote. “Will we win anything if we hate and accuse? Will this return Pierre to us? No… We choose to forgive.”