MOGADISHU // US navy Seals parachuted into Somalia under cover of darkness early yesterday and crept up to an outdoor camp where an American woman and Danish man were being held hostage. Soon, nine kidnappers were dead and both hostages were freed.
Barack Obama, the US president, authorised the mission two days earlier, and minutes after he gave his State of the Union address to Congress he was on the phone with the American's father to tell him his daughter was safe.
"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," Mr Obama said in a statement released by the White House.
The Danish Refugee Council confirmed that the two aid workers, the American, Jessica Buchanan, and the Dane, Poul Hagen Thisted, were "on their way to be reunited with their families".
Ms Buchanan, 32, and Mr Thisted, 60, were working with a de-mining unit of the Danish Refugee Council when gunmen kidnapped the two in October from the town of Galkayo in the semiautonomous Galmudug region in northern Somalia.
Experts from the demining group have been clearing mines and unexploded ordnance in conflict zones in Africa and the Middle East.
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 and three were "taken away," which could mean they were captured by US troops.
He said the raid caught the guards as they were sleeping after having chewed the narcotic leaf qat for much of the evening.
New intelligence emerged last week that Ms Buchanan's health was "deteriorating rapidly," so Mr Obama directed his security team to develop a rescue plan, according to a senior administration official who was not authorised to speak publicly.
On Monday, after a top-level security meeting to review rescue options, the US national security adviser, Tom Donilon, briefed Mr Obama on a possible plan that the president authorised, the official said.
A western official said the helicopters and the freed hostages flew to a US military base called Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti after the raid.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
"One of the hostages has a disease that was very serious and that had to be solved," the Danish foreign minister, Villy Soevndal, told Denmark's TV2 channel.
He congratulated the Americans for the raid and said he had been informed of the action.
The Danish Refugee Council said both freed hostages were unharmed "and at a safe location".
The group said in a separate statement that the two hostages were "on their way to be reunited with their families".
The council had been trying to work with Somali elders to win the hostages' freedom but had found little success.
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 defences against pirate attacks, gangs have looked for other moneymaking opportunities like land-based kidnappings.
"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."
Ms Buchanan and Mr Thisted were seized from the portion of Galkayo 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.
Several hostages are still being held in Somalia, including a British tourist, two Spanish doctors seized from across the border in Kenya, and an American journalist kidnapped on Saturday.