Navy SEAL Team Frees Hostages In Somalia

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. Navy SEAL team 6 is at center stage once again. Last night as President Barack Obama delivered his state of the union address the unit that killed Osama Bin Laden last year was winding up another mission. It was the rescue of American aid worker, Jessica Buchanan, and her Danish colleague. They'd been held hostage in Somalia since October. The rescue involved Navy SEALs who parachuted into central Somalia, hiked one mile in the dark and then killed nine Somalis before they got the aid workers onto a waiting plane. No US troops were injured. American officials say that members of the unit that took part in this mission were difference from those involved in the Bin Laden operation. New York Times' Jeffrey Gettleman is in East Africa following this story. He says there are conflicting accounts today about whether any Somalis were captured in the mission.

Jeffrey Gettleman: Somali officials said emphatically that five gunman were captured, and we even interviewed a pirate today who is part of some connected criminal enterprise in the same area, and he said that five of these gunmen had been taken alive. Those were his words. However, the Pentagon was adamant that no prisoners were taken.

Mullins: Well, could it have been that they were captured by Somalis instead of Americans?

Gettleman: That's not what we heard and there were no Somali forces involved.

Mullins: So this was an American strike, do we know if there were any Somali locals who were helping the Americans in at least the planning or in tipping off the Americans as to where the hostages were being held?

Gettleman: We don't know. In the past that has not been the case. The American government and the French government have launched special operations strikes within Somalia and usually they do the surveillance themselves. They use a lot of electronic intelligence, monitoring satellite phones, flying over and taking pictures and video images, so I don't think they have a real human intelligence network on the ground. And my guess would be that maybe they got a little information about who was holding these people and where, but that they collected a lot of the intelligence themselves.

Mullins: The hostages themselves, the two people, Jessica Buchanan and her Danish colleague, they were uninjured. Do we know how it happened that they were able to be kept safe during what sounds like a pretty intense fire fight?

Gettleman: It's very rare for pirates to harm their hostages. The hostages are their hope for a big payout. So, we don't know exactly what happened in this shootout, but it probably wouldn't be in the pirates' interest to turn their guns on their hostages.

Mullins: But why would President Obama himself take a special interest in a case like this?

Gettleman: I think that's a really good question. It seems unusual for him to get that involved in the details of one American taken in Somalia when there have been you know, several people that have been kidnapped in Somalia. You know, dozens or hundreds of Westerners have been, including some Americans before, but maybe it signals a more robust approach to combatting piracy, which is seen as a real scourge in the Indian Ocean and the high seas.

Mullins: When a raid like this happens though, as successful as it appears to have been, does it make things harder or easier for the US military to conduct other rescues because there are other Americans or at least one other American we know of who is being held hostage in Somalia.

Gettleman: That's right, there's another American guy, a freelance journalist, who was kidnapped last week and in the same exact area where this raid took place. This area is a notorious pirate infested part of Somalia. And as it's gotten more difficult for pirates to attack ships on the high seas because of the naval efforts, pirates are trying more and more to kidnap people on land. But I'm not sure that they're gonna take a different position after something like this. You have to understand that Somali pirates are basically uneducated, very poor young men who have absolutely no other opportunities in their environment to make money. They drift around the high seas for weeks, little food and water, often no communication equipment. Some run out of water and die in these little dinghies that they use. Others drown. These people are doing this because they have nothing else they can do. And I think it's not gonna change and they're not gonna really develop any sophisticated tactics in response to these rescue efforts.

Mullins: You mentioned also you've heard, Jeffrey, that the local Somalis are pretty happy that guys like this are apprehended. They're glad to see them go.

Gettleman: Exactly, elders say that the pirates have totally tarnished Somalia's name. They make Somalia look like a land of thugs. And they also cause practical problems like inflation because when they get a big ransom it's in cash, they spend the money carelessly, and that makes everything more expensive for the locals living in that area.

Mullins: New York Times' Jeffrey Gettleman, thank you for speaking to us.

Gettleman: Thank you.