U.S. military forces helicoptered into Somalia in a nighttime raid Wednesday and freed two hostages, an American and a Dane, while killing nine pirates., U.S. officials confirm.
The Danish Refugee Council also confirmed the two aid workers, American Jessica Buchanan and Dane Poul Hagan Thisted, were freed "during an operation in Somalia."
Buchanan, 32, and Thisted, 60, had been working with a de-mining unit of the Danish Refugee Council when they were kidnapped in October.
President Obama confirmed the operation and rescue early Wednesday in a statement. He said the operation serves as yet another message to the world that the U.S. "will stand strongly against any threats to our people."
"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," he said. "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."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also praised the mission early Wednesday, saying the operation was a "team effort" between multiple departments.
"This successful hostage rescue, undertaken in a hostile environment, is a testament to the superb skills of courageous service members who risked their lives to save others," he said.
The president appeared to refer to the mission before his State of the Union address in Washington Tuesday night. As he entered the House chamber in the U.S. Capitol, he pointed at Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in the crowd and said, "Good job tonight."
A Western official told The Associated Press that the raid was carried out by U.S. military forces. A second official said the helicopters and the hostages flew to a U.S. military base called Camp Lemonier in the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the information had not been released publicly.
Panetta visited Camp Lemonier 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."
The two aid workers appear to have been kidnapped by criminals, sometimes referred to as pirates, and not by Somalia's Al Qaeda-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.
A pirate who gave his name as Bile Hussein said he had spoken to pirates at the scene of the raid and they reported that nine pirates had been killed. A second pirate who gave his name as Ahmed Hashi said two helicopters attacked at about 2 a.m. at the site where the hostages were being held about 12 miles north of the Somali town of Adado.
The Danish Refugee Council had earlier enlisted traditional Somali elders and members of civil society to seek the release of the two hostages. The two 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 and two Spanish doctors seized from neighboring Kenya, and an American journalist kidnapped on Saturday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.