Two foreign aid workers, American Jessica Buchanan and Danish Poul Thisted, kidnapped in Somalia three months ago, have been freed in a rare US Navy Seals raid there.
US officials have confirmed that elite US Navy Seals were dropped into Somalia to carry out the overnight operation which resulted in a shoot-out.
A number of the captors were killed, according to local officals. However the two hostages were freed unharmed, a Danish humanitarian group says.
Jessica Buchanan, 32, and Poul Thisted, 60, were seized on 25 October.
Jessica Buchanan and Poul Thisted had been working for the Danish Demining Group when they were abducted by gunmen near the north-central town of Galkayo, hundreds of kilometres from the capital Mogadishu.
At the time of the raid they were being kept about 40 km east of the town of Adado and 100 km south of Galkayo – in a semi-autonomous area controlled by a local administration opposed to the Islamist al-Shabab militants but which has no official links to the transitional government in the capital, Mogadishu.
US officials said the captors were not al-Shabab, “these were criminals”.
Other remaining hostages in Somalia include a UK tourist and two Spanish medics who were abducted in neighboring Kenya.
An US official has said the Seals parachuted from a plane into an area near the compound where the two hostages were being held near Adado.
Shots were fired as the team approached the compound, but there were no US casualties, say US officials.
Local officials said that eight or nine of the captors were killed.
The rescue team was on the ground for about an hour and the raid was over by 03:00 (24:00 GMT).
Afterwards, the two freed hostages and the Seals left the area by helicopter for the nearby tiny Horn of Africa state of Djibouti, where the US has a military presence.
The Danish Refugee Council, which had been involved in efforts to free them via mediation, said they were unharmed and “at a safe location”.
Denmark’s foreign minister has suggested that a rescue had become a pressing issue because one of the hostages had a “very serious” disease, although no further details were given.
The first hint of the successful operation appeared to come from US President Barack Obama himself – as he prepared to give the State of the Union address, he turned to his Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and said “Good job tonight.”
The aid workers have been taken to Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti, which “serves as a key location from which US and coalition forces operate in the Horn of Africa” according to its website.
About 2,500 personnel – including civilians and defence contractors – are based there as well as armour, fighters and drones.
Correspondents say that following the killing in 1993 of 19 US soldiers and the wounding of 70 others in Mogadishu, there is no appetite for full-scale US ground operations in Somalia.