SANAA, Yemen — An American photojournalist and a South African teacher held by al-Qaida militants in Yemen were killed Saturday during a U.S.-led rescue operation that President Barack Obama said he ordered because of "imminent danger" to the U.S. hostage.
U.S. officials believe the militants shot the two men during a firefight, and that both were alive when American forces pulled them from a building on the group's compound and put them on aircraft, where medical teams operated on them during a short flight to the USS Makin Island, a Navy ship in the region.
South African Pierre Korkie is believed to have died during the flight, while American Luke Somers died on the ship, according to senior U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the information had yet to be approved for release.
About 40 U.S. special operations forces were part of the mission, according to the U.S. officials. The rescuers, backed by Yemeni ground forces, got within 100 meters of the compound in southern Shabwa province when they were spotted by the militants, and the skirmish ensued.
Yemen's highest security body, the Supreme Security Committee, issued a rare statement acknowledging that the country's forces had carried out the raid with "American friends." The committee said all the militants who were holding the hostages were killed in the operation.
The second rescue attempt in less than two weeks to free Somers was prompted by a video posted online earlier in the week in which al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula threatened to kill him within 72 hours.
But an aid group helping negotiate Korkie's release said he was to be freed Sunday and his wife was told that "the wait is almost over."
In a statement, Obama did not address Korkie by name, only saying he "authorized the rescue of any other hostages held in the same location as Luke." The South African government did not immediately comment on Korkie's death.
Information "indicated that Luke's life was in imminent danger," Obama said. "Based on this assessment, and as soon as there was reliable intelligence and an operational plan, I authorized a rescue attempt."
Officials said Obama authorized the rescue mission Friday morning and was informed that evening about the outcome.
Lucy Somers, the photojournalist's sister, told The Associated Press that she and her father learned of her 33-year-old brother's death from FBI agents at midnight Friday.
"We ask that all of Luke's family members be allowed to mourn in peace," she said from near London.
Yemen's national security chief, Maj. Gen. Ali al-Ahmadi, said the militants planned to kill Luke Somers on Saturday, and that prompted the joint mission.
"Al-Qaida promised to conduct the execution (of Somers) today so there was an attempt to save them but unfortunately they shot the hostage before or during the attack," al-Ahmadi said at a conference in Manama, Bahrain.
The operation began before dawn Saturday in a province that is a stronghold of al-Qaida's branch in Yemen. U.S. drones struck the Wadi Abdan area first, followed by strafing runs by jets before Yemeni ground forces moved in, a Yemeni security official said. Helicopters flew in more forces to raid the house where the two men were held, he said.
At least nine al-Qaida militants were killed in an initial drone strike, another security official said. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
U.S. officials said no American troops were killed or injured. The American military team was on the ground for about 30 minutes. Officials also said that based on the location on the compound where Somers and Korkie were found, there was no possibility that the hostages were killed by American fire.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the rescue mission was "extremely well-executed, and was complicated and risky. The two men "were murdered by the AQAP terrorists during the course of the operation," Hagel said during a visit to Afghanistan.
The rescue mission was the second by U.S. and Yemeni forces searching for Somers, among the roughly dozen hostages believed held by al-Qaida militants in Yemen.
On Nov. 25, American special operations forces and Yemeni soldiers raided a remote al-Qaida safe haven in a desert region near the Saudi border, freeing eight captives, including Yemenis, a Saudi and an Ethiopian. Somers, a Briton and four others had been moved days earlier, officials later said.
Following that first raid, al-Qaida militants released a video Thursday that showed Somers. The group threatened to kill him in three days if the United States did not meet unspecified demands or if another rescue was made.
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.
Before her brother's death, Lucy Somers released an online video describing him 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.
Korkie was kidnapped in the Yemeni city of Taiz in May 2013, along with his wife, Yolande. Militants later released her after a nongovernmental group, Gift of the Givers, helped negotiate for her freedom. Those close to Korkie said al-Qaida militants demanded a $3 million ransom for his release.
"The psychological and emotional devastation to Yolande and her family will be compounded by the knowledge that Pierre was to be released by al-Qaida tomorrow," Gift of Givers said in a statement Saturday.
"A team of Abyan leaders met in Aden this morning and were preparing the final security and logistical arrangements, related to hostage release mechanisms, to bring Pierre to safety and freedom. It is even more tragic that the words we used in a conversation with Yolande at 5:59 this morning was: 'The wait is almost over.'"
Somers, who was born in Britain, earned a bachelor's degree in creative writing while attending Beloit College in Wisconsin from 2004 through 2007.
"He really wanted to understand the world," said Shawn Gillen, an English professor and chairman of Beloit College's journalism program who had Gillen as a student.
Fuad Al Kadas, who called Somers one of his best friends, said Somers spent time in Egypt before finding work in Yemen. Somers started teaching English at a Yemen school but quickly established himself as a one of the few foreign photographers in the country, he said.
"He is a great man with a kind heart who really loves the Yemeni people and the country," Al Kadas wrote in an email from Yemen. He said he last saw Somers the day before Somers was kidnapped.
"He was so dedicated in trying to help change Yemen's future, to do good things for the people that he didn't leave the country his entire time here," Al Kadas wrote.
Al-Arashi, his editor at the National Yemen, recalled a moment when Somers edited a story on other hostages held in the country.
"He looked at me and said, 'I don't want to be a hostage,'" al-Arashi said. "'I don't want to be kidnapped.'"
Pace reported from Washington. Associated Press writers who contributed to this report include Maamoun Youssef, Sarah El Deeb, Maggie Michael and Jon Gambrell in Cairo; Robert Burns in Kabul, Afghanistan; Ken Dilanian in Washington; Adam Schreck and Fay Abuelgasim in Manama, Bahrain; Andrew Meldrum in Johannesburg; and Yusof Abdul-Rahman in London.