(Reuters) - Elite U.S. Navy SEALs swooped into Somalia on Wednesday and rescued two hostage aid workers after killing their nine kidnappers, a rare and daring raid in the Horn of Africa nation to free foreign captives.
American Jessica Buchanan, 32, and Poul Hagen Thisted, 60, of Denmark, humanitarian aid workers for a Danish demining group, were rescued three months after they were kidnapped on October 25 in the town of Galkayo in the semi-autonomous Galmudug region of the Horn of Africa country.
The SEALs came from the same elite Navy unit -- SEAL Team Six -- that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at his compound in Pakistan last year, U.S. officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The mission also involved other U.S. forces providing airlift for the SEALs to and from the raid.
"The United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people and will spare no effort to secure the safety of our citizens and to bring their captors to justice," President Barack Obama said in a statement.
The SEALs parachuted into a location near the town of Gadaado in central Somalia and then hiked to the encampment where the two hostages were being held by their nine abductors, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.
It was not clear that any of the same SEALs were involved in both the Somalia and bin Laden raids even if they came from SEAL Team Six.
The raiding party arrived prepared to detain the kidnappers but was not able to do that and all nine were killed, Pentagon officials said. The kidnappers were heavily armed and had explosives nearby, they said. None of the U.S. forces was hurt.
Obama authorized the raid on Monday and military commanders gave the final go-ahead on Tuesday, Pentagon officials said.
They said a confluence of factors, from the health of the hostages to the available intelligence and operational conditions, gave Obama a window of opportunity to act and prompted Washington to move ahead with the raid.
Buchanan was suffering from a possible kidney infection, according to people involved with the hostages. New evidence obtained last week suggested her health was deteriorating, said Pentagon officials, who would not elaborate on her condition.
"We're confident that there was enough of a sense of urgency, there was enough actionable intelligence to take the action that we did, for the president to make the decision that he did," said Navy Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.
Buchanan and Thisted were flown to neighboring Djibouti, home to the only U.S. military base in Africa and France's largest base on the continent, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity. They were under the care of U.S. military doctors, officials said.
'GOOD JOB TONIGHT'
Obama was overheard congratulating Panetta on the success of the operation as the president entered the U.S. House of Representatives chamber on Tuesday for his annual State of the Union speech.
Panetta had been at the White House before the speech and had been monitoring the progress of the operation. The raid was still being wrapped up when the president spoke to him.
"Leon. Good job tonight. Good job tonight," Obama said.
The Pentagon said there were no known links between the kidnappers and Islamist militant groups in the region. Kirby said the U.S. military had no evidence to connect them to piracy.
But Obama called them "criminals and pirates" in his statement, as did local officials.
"About 12 U.S. helicopters are now at Galkayo. We thank the United States. Pirates have spoilt the whole region's peace and ethics. They are mafia," Mohamed Ahmed Alim, leader of the Galmudug region, told Reuters.
He was speaking from Hobyo, a pirate base north of Haradheere, where he said he was negotiating the release of an American journalist seized on Saturday, also from Galkayo.
Somali pirate gangs typically seize ships in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden and hold the crews until they receive a ransom. The kidnapping of the aid workers in Galkayo would be an unusual case of a pirate gang being behind a seizure on land.
U.S. and French forces have intervened to rescue pirate hostages at sea, but attacks on pirate bases are rare.
Pirates and local elders say the American journalist and a number of sailors from India, South Korea, the Philippines and Denmark are being held by pirate gangs.
A British tourist kidnapped from Kenya on September 11, 2011, is also still held captive in Somalia.
Somalia's government applauded the mission and said it welcomed any operation against pirates.
U.S. special forces killed senior al Qaeda militant Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in a raid in southern Somalia in 2009. Several other al Qaeda or al Shabaab officials have been killed in U.S. drone strikes in Somalia over the past few years.
In an excerpt of a CBS 60 Minutes interview released on Wednesday, Panetta said al Qaeda "is still a threat" that the United States would pursue around the world, including Africa.
"We're confronting the nodes of al Qaeda in Yemen, in Somalia, in North Africa," Panetta said.
Panetta visited U.S. troops in Djibouti last month on his way to Afghanistan and Iraq, in a stopover that reflected Obama's growing focus on the militant and piracy threats from Yemen and the eastern edge of Africa.
In Djibouti, the United States has a platform to monitor al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen and Somalia's al Shabaab, a hard-line rebel group with links to al Qaeda.
(CNN) -- U.S. Special Forces parachuted overnight into Somalia from fixed-wing planes, then advanced on foot to a compound holding two kidnapped international aid workers and freed them, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
The nine gunmen holding the hostages -- an American and a Dane -- were killed, the officials said.
Jessica Buchanan, 32, and Poul Thisted, 60, had been held since October 25, when they were abducted in Galkayo, central Somalia, after they visited humanitarian projects, said the Danish Refugee Council, the agency for which they worked.
Neither was harmed, the aid group said.
They were taken to a regional medical facility, Pentagon spokesman George Little said Wednesday.
"They are not hospitalized," said Andreas Kamm, secretary-general of the Danish Refugee Council, so "we take it as a sign that they're OK."
The pair phoned their families from the African nation of Djibouti after the rescue, said Ann Mary Olsen of the Danish Refugee Council, according to Danish TV2 reporter Thorkild Dahl.
The Navy SEAL unit that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden last year in Pakistan participated in the mission, a U.S. official said, without specifying whether any of the same individuals were on both assaults.
Pentagon spokesman Little said the rescue team included special operations troops from different branches of the military but would not specify which branches.
The SEALs are part of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, formerly known as SEAL Team Six.
The special forces troops took fire as they fought their way into a compound where the hostages were held, the official said, adding the troops believed that the kidnappers were shooting. The official is not authorized to speak to the media and asked not to be named.
Nine gunmen were killed in the strike, Little said, adding that they had explosives nearby. There were no known survivors among the kidnappers, he added.
The American assault team did not suffer any casualties, the Pentagon said.
The special forces took the hostages from the compound and onto waiting helicopters, the U.S. official said.
The United States was in close contact with Denmark before, during and after the raid, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney, traveling Wednesday with President Barack Obama to Iowa, said the commander-in-chief learned of the success of the mission at 6:43 p.m. Tuesday, more than two hours before he delivered the State of the Union address.
"The decision to go ahead with this rescue mission was made because there was information concerning the deteriorating health of Ms. Buchanan, as well as a window of opportunity to execute this mission," Carney said.
Obama, who had given the go-ahead at 9 p.m. Monday, was updated on its progress throughout Tuesday, Carney said.
Minutes after concluding his speech, at 10:32 p.m., the president telephoned Buchanan's father to inform him of the mission's success, Carney said.
John Buchanan told CNN he was "flabbergasted" when Obama called up out of the blue.
He said, 'John, this is Barack Obama. I'm calling because I have great news for you. Your daughter has been rescued by our military.'
"Then he referred to his daughters, obviously had a human element there. Then he said something to the effect of, 'People just can't do this to our citizens, especially young people who are trying to help others.'"
"I'm extremely proud and glad to be an American," Buchanan said. "I didn't know this was going to transpire. I'm glad it did."
He said Jessica was "doing well, under the circumstances."
Buchanan said he planned to fly Thursday to meet his daughter, but he could not say where that would take place.
At his State of the Union address, before news broke of the rescue, Obama told Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, "Leon, good job tonight. Good job tonight."
The hostages were safe at that point, but the mission was not yet complete as the American assault team had not departed Somalia, Little said.
In a statement, Obama thanked the special operations forces for their "extraordinary courage and capabilities."
"The United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people, and will spare no effort to secure the safety of our citizens and to bring their captors to justice," Obama said. "This is yet another message to the world that the United States of America will stand strongly against any threats to our people."
Panetta monitored the rescue from the White House, Little said.
In a statement, Panetta called the raid "a testament to the superb skills of courageous service members who risked their lives to save others."
Speaking on ABC's "Good Morning America," Vice President Joe Biden said of the special forces: "It just takes your breath away, their capacity and their bravery and their incredible timing."
Capt. John Kirby, another Pentagon spokesman, said the abductors were ordinary criminals.
"They were kidnappers. We don't have any indication that they were connected to any terrorist group or ideological group at that point," he said.
"They were not Al-Shabaab," Little said, referring to the al Qaeda-linked Islamist militia that holds sway over parts of Somalia.
He said the sense of urgency with regard to the hostage situation had increased from mid-January.
"It's safe to say that within the last week or so, we were able to connect enough dots that we could make the decisions that were made," Kirby said, referring to the intelligence U.S. officials had to go on.
The area where the hostages were seized is known as a hub for pirates, rather than an area of Islamic militant activity.
A number of high-profile abductions of foreigners have occurred in Somalia and in Kenya, close to the largely lawless Somali border.
Some of the kidnappings have been blamed on Al-Shabaab, while criminals seeking ransoms seem to have carried out others.
It was not clear how the raid might affect the fate of Michael Scott Moore, a U.S. journalist who was kidnapped Saturday near Galkayo -- the same town in central Somalia where the two aid workers were taken last October.
In an exclusive interview with CNN, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga congratulated the United States on the rescue and said he supported further U.S. and NATO action on the ground in Somalia.
"We would really like to see more concerted international effort in dealing with issues of international terrorism," he said.
"This action will send a very clearly signal to the Al-Shabaab that it doesn't matter how long they hold (their) hostages, the international community will continue to keep them on the radar."
Kenya sent troops over the border into Somalia in October to take on Al-Shabaab in response to abductions of aid workers and tourists.
The U.S. raid comes nearly three years after Navy snipers killed three pirates who had taken hostage the captain of the Maersk Alabama off Somalia.
U.S. forces did not coordinate the raid with local officials, but residents welcomed the outcome as a warning to other groups to cease the kidnapping of foreigners, said Abdirahman Mohamud Farole, president of Puntland, a semiautonomous region of Somalia.
Thisted, the rescued Dane, is a senior aid worker, said Olsen of the Danish Refugee Council.
Local authorities gave conflicting casualty figures after the raid. Some officials said seven gunmen were killed, but Mohamed Ahmed Aalin, president of Galmudug state, said nine were killed and five others detained by U.S. forces.
The aid workers were part of the Danish Refugee Council's de-mining unit, which aims to make civilians safe from landmines and unexploded ordnance.
"We have been congratulated from all corners of the Somali society, and we have been told of celebrations in the the capital Mogadishu, in Galkayo and in the streets of Adado, where the local community has worked very hard to help Poul and Jessica," Olsen said. "Their efforts have not been wasted."
Buchanan has been employed as a regional education adviser with the mine clearance unit of DRC since May; Thisted, a community safety manager with the de-mining unit, has been working in Somaliland and Somalia since June 2009.