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New Details Emerge In Failed Yemen Hostage Rescue


There are new details emerging about the deaths of two hostages in Yemen over the weekend. Luke Somers was American. The other, Pierre Korkie, was South African. They were killed by al-Qaida fighters, shot as dozens of commandos led by the Navy Seal Team Six were attempting to rescue the American. Here's White House spokesperson Josh Earnest earlier today.


JOSH EARNEST: The president does not at all regret ordering this mission to try to rescue Mr. Somers. It is apparent that these militants were planning to kill Mr. Somers on Saturday. There was a very limited window for action.

CORNISH: Joining us in the studio is NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. And Tom, just lay out what happened for us. It's an incredibly dramatic turn of events.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: You know, Audie, it is dramatic. Seal Team Six, a special ops team, had pretty good intelligence that the American Luke Somers, a freelance journalist, was being held at this remote location in southern Yemen. U.S. officials are saying they did not know the South African aid worker named Pierre Korkie was also being held there nor, say U.S. officials, did the U.S. know that a South African aid group called Gift of the Givers was in the final stages of negotiating the release of Mr. Korkie. He was a 56-year-old relief worker. And I spoke to Doctor Imtiaz Sooliman, head of Gift of the Givers. He said the Korkie family had agreed to pay $200,000 for his release. They expected him to be released the next day.

CORNISH: Tom, $200,000, but I understand the demand initially was for up to 3 million.

BOWMAN: That's right. Doctor Sooliman called it a facilitation fee. And he was told the money - the $200,000 was going to assist the family members of local tribes who had been killed in the ongoing fights between the Yemeni government in al-Qaida. He said the Yemeni government was aware of his group's negotiations to release My. Korkie, but Doctor Sooliman said he never informed the U.S. government. Now what's interesting is that Mr. Korkie's wife, Yolande, was also taken hostage with him about a year and a half ago. She was released in January with no money changing hands after negotiations. And again, U.S. officials said they knew there was another hostage with Luke Somers. They just didn't know who it was.

CORNISH: Can you talk about how the Somers family is responding?

BOWMAN: Well, the American family of Luke Somers is saying they were not told that a raid would happen and were told by FBI agents after the raid that he had been killed. And they've asked for privacy to mourn in peace.

CORNISH: Tom, from what you've learned, is there anything in the way this rescue operation went down that's raising questions?

BOWMAN: Well, clearly there will be what's called an after-action report - a kind of a lessons-learned and how can they do things better, for example. But from what I've learned, it went pretty well at the start. Seal Team Six along with some Yemeni commandos were flown into the area on U.S. aircraft miles from the compound, and there were more than 40 commandos in total. And then they walked for several hours to reach these mud houses. It was about a hundred yards from the huts that some sort of a sound, you know, alerted the al-Qaida fighters, and then a firefight with commandos broke out.

Now one of the al-Qaida fighters immediately went into where they were holding the hostages in a house and he was able to shoot both of them. U.S. officials say they saw this all on a video captured by a U.S. drone flying overhead. But the U.S. commandos eventually did recover the hostages, but both of them died a short time later.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tom Bowman on the failed rescue attempt by the U.S. which left two hostages dead in Yemen on Saturday. Tom, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
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