U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Saturday that an American photojournalist being held by Al-Qaida militants in Yemen was "murdered" by terrorists during a rescue attempt ordered by President Barack Obama.
Speaking in Afghanistan, Hagel said Luke Somers, 33, and a second non-U.S. citizen were "murdered by AQAP terrorists during the mission."
Hagel said that several militants were also killed in the mission carried out by U.S. special forces.
The aid group Gift of Givers identified the second hostage as South African teacher Pierre Korkie, who the group said was to be released Sunday. They said he was to be flown out of Yemen "under diplomatic cover, then to meet with family members in a 'safe' country (and) fly to South Africa."
Later on Saturday, Obama condemned the "barbaric murder."
"On behalf of the American people, I offer my deepest condolences to Luke's family and to his loved ones," Obama said in a statement.
"As this and previous hostage rescue operations demonstrate, the United States will spare no effort to use all of its military, intelligence and diplomatic capabilities to bring Americans home safely, wherever they are located. And terrorists who seek to harm our citizens will feel the long arm of American justice."
Earlier, Somers' sister told The Associated Press that she learned of her brother's death from FBI agents.
"We ask that all of Luke's family members be allowed to mourn in peace," Lucy Somers said.
Yemen's local Al-Qaida branch, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, posted a video Thursday that showed Somers, threatening to kill him in three days if the United States didn't meet the group's demands, which weren't specified. He was kidnapped in September 2013 from Sanaa.
Suspected U.S. drone strike
The news of the failed rescue comes after a suspected U.S. drone strike in Yemen killed nine alleged Al-Qaida militants early Saturday, a security official said. The drone struck at dawn in Yemen's southern Shabwa province, hitting a suspected militant hideout, the official said. The official did not elaborate and spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn't authorized to brief journalists.
At least six suspected militants were killed in an air strike in the same province last month. Later Saturday, tribal leaders said they saw helicopters flying over an area called Wadi Abdan in Shabwa province.
American authorities rarely discuss their drone strike campaign in Yemen. The strikes are incredibly unpopular in Yemen due to civilian casualties, legitimizing for many the attacks on American interests.
In an online video released Saturday, Lucy Somers described her older brother as a romantic who "always believes the best in people." She ended with the plea: "Please let him live."
In a statement, Somers' father, Michael, also called his son "a good friend of Yemen and the Yemeni people" and asked for his safe release.
Another failed resuce attempt
In a statement Thursday, Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby acknowledged for the first time that a mysterious U.S. raid last month had sought to rescue Somers but that he turned out not to be at the site.
Kirby did not elaborate on the joint U.S-Yemeni operation to free Somers, saying details remained classified. However, officials have said the raid targeted a remote Al-Qaida safe haven in a desert region near the Saudi border. Eight captives — including Yemenis, a Saudi and an Ethiopian — were freed. Somers, a Briton and four others had been moved days earlier.
Somers was kidnapped in September 2013 as he left a supermarket in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, said Fakhri al-Arashi, chief editor of the National Yemen, where Somers worked as a copy editor and a freelance photographer during the 2011 uprising in Yemen.
The U.S. considers Yemen's Al-Qaida branch to be the world's most dangerous arm of the group as it has been linked to several failed attacks on the U.S. homeland.bian Peninsula (AQAP) on Wednesday purported to show Somers and threatened to kill him if unspecified demands were not met.
Al-Qaida and allied Islamist militants have a strong presence in large parts of southern and eastern Yemen, an impoverished Arabian Peninsula country where the government has little control outside main cities.
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