MOGADISHU, Somalia - U.S. Special Forces troops flew into Somalia on a nighttime helicopter raid early Wednesday, freed an American and a Danish hostage and killed nine of the kidnappers in a mission that President Barack Obama said he personally authorized.
The Danish Refugee Council confirmed that the two aid workers, American Jessica Buchanan and Dane Poul Hagen Thisted, were freed and "are on their way to be reunited with their families."
The raiders came in very quickly, catching the guards as they were sleeping after having chewed the narcotic leaf qat for much of the evening, a pirate who gave his name as Bile Hussein told The Associated Press by phone. Hussein said he was not present at the site but had spoken with other pirates who were, and that they told him nine pirates had been killed in the raid and three were missing.
A second pirate who gave his name as Ahmed Hashi said two helicopters attacked at about 2 a.m. about 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of the Somali town of Adado where the hostages were being held.
Buchanan, 32, and Thisted, 60, were working with a de-mining unit of the Danish Refugee Council when they were kidnapped in October.
The U.S. military's Africa Command, based in Stuttgart, Germany, confirmed that nine kidnappers were killed.
"Last night's mission, boldly conducted by some of our nation's most courageous, competent, and committed special operations forces, exemplifies United States Africa Command's mission to protect Americans and American interests in Africa," said Gen. Carter F. Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command.
Obama seemed to refer to the mission before his State of the Union address in Washington Tuesday night. By then it was already Wednesday morning in Somalia. As he entered the House chamber in the U.S. Capitol, Obama pointed at Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in the crowd and said, "Good job tonight."
"As Commander-in-Chief, I could not be prouder of the troops who carried out this mission, and the dedicated professionals who supported their efforts," Obama said in a statement released by the White House Wednesday. He said he had authorized the rescue mission on Monday.
"Jessica Buchanan was selflessly serving her fellow human beings when she was taken hostage by criminals and pirates who showed no regard for her health and well-being," Obama said. "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."
A Western official said the helicopters and the hostages flew to a U.S. military base called Camp Lemonnier in the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti after the raid. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the information had not been released publicly.
The timing of the raid may have been made more urgent by a medical condition. The Danish Refugee Council had been trying to work with Somali elders to win the hostages' freedom but had found little success.
"One of the hostages has a disease that was very serious and that had to be solved," Danish Foreign Minister Villy Soevndal told Denmark's TV2 channel. Soevndal did not provide any more details.
Soevndal congratulated the Americans for the raid and said he had been informed of the action.
Panetta visited Camp Lemonnier just over a month ago. A key U.S. ally in this region, Djibouti has the only U.S. base in sub-Saharan Africa. It hosts the military's Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa.
The Danish Refugee Council said both freed hostages are unharmed "and at a safe location." The group said in a separate statement that the two "are on their way to be reunited with their families."
Ann Mary Olsen, head of the Danish Refugee Council's international department, was the one who informed the family of Hagen Thisted of the successful military operation.
"They (the family) were very happy and incredibly relieved that it is over," she said.
The two aid workers appear to have been kidnapped by criminals - sometimes referred to as pirates - and not by Somalia's al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabab. As large ships at sea have increased their defenses against pirate attacks, gangs have looked for other money making opportunities like land-based kidnappings.
The Danish Refugee Council had earlier enlisted traditional Somali elders and members of civil society to seek the release of the two hostages.
"We are really happy with the successful release of the innocents kidnapped by evildoers," said Mohamud Sahal, an elder in Galkayo town, by phone. "They were guests who were treated brutally. That was against Islam and our culture ... These men (pirates) have spoiled our good customs and culture, so Somalis should fight back."
Buchanan and Hagen Thisted were seized in October from the portion of Galkayo town under the control of a government-allied clan militia. The aid agency has said that Somalis held demonstrations demanding the pair's quick release.
Their Somali colleague was detained by police on suspicion of being involved in their kidnapping.
The two hostages were working in northern Somalia for the Danish Demining Group, whose experts have been clearing mines and unexploded ordnance in conflict zones in Africa and the Middle East.
Several hostages are still being held in Somalia, including a British tourist, two Spanish doctors seized from neighboring Kenya, and an American journalist kidnapped on Saturday.