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Behind the failed rescue effort of American hostage in Yemen

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS ANCHOR:

    Joining me now via Skype from Bahrain is "New York Times" reporter Eric Schmidt. So Eric, what do we know about the details of this operation?

  • ERIC SCHMIDT:

    Well, overnight Friday early morning in Yemen, about three dozen special operations forces, including Navy SEAL Team 6, swept into a small village in southern Yemen with the object of trying to free Luke Somers, the American photojournalist who was held hostage there. They came in on Osprey helicopter, Osprey aircraft, approached on foot to a walled compound, and got within about a hundred yards of this compound when somehow they were detected by the armed gunmen inside who were holding the hostages.

    A gun battle broke out, and in the – before the commandos could get inside the compound, both hostages had been shot as the militants fled. The commandoes hurried to get both hostages, Luke Somers and a South African aboard the aircraft and out to the Navy ship, which has launched the mission. Unfortunately, one of the hostages died en route. The other died on the ship itself.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And this wasn't the first time that we've tried to rescue Mr. Somers, right?

  • ERIC SCHMIDT:

    No, it was just about – oh, just a little less than two weeks ago when another special operations team also conducted a raid on what they believed to be a site holding hostages. And they did rescue about eight other hostages, including several Yemenese. But Mr. Somers had been moved, along with three or four other Westerners. So this was a follow-up effort to try and rescue them before a deadline imposed by the al Qaeda affiliate (ph) in Yemen expired on Saturday.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Were there any other injuries, any members of the U.S. Special Forces that were injured or civilians on the ground or the people who were holding him hostage?

  • ERIC SCHMIDT:

    There have been some reports, media reports, of civilian causalities, but I have not yet been able to confirm that. There were no military casualties as part of this team. It's a dangerous part, a remote part of southern Yemen, of course, that al Qaeda, the al Qaeda affiliate there has controlled for some time now. So this is a very dangerous, high-risk mission.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And this is a joint operation between U.S. forces and Yemeni forces. How has that been going over the past year or two years as these governments have been trying to work together?

  • ERIC SCHMIDT:

    Well, the government in Yemen under President Hadi has been a very effective partner in the counterterrorism field. U.S. has had trainers inside of Yemen, training some of their counterterrorism and special operations forces. And there were a few Yemeni counterterrorism specialists onboard this mission, but it was primarily a U.S. operation to rescue the American and anybody else they could find in this compound.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And you know, everyone in the United States recognizes or remembers in 2011 the successful operation to kill Osama Bin Laden, to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden. But since then, at least in the recent past, there have been a couple of failures as well, highlighting how difficult and dangerous these are.

  • ERIC SCHMIDT:

    Exactly. And it just underscores the fragility of the intelligence that these special operations officers have to use when they go in. In this case, they were under some time pressures that they knew the hostages were threatened with death by the end of Saturday, or at least the American hostage was. Because of the previous raid just a couple of weeks ago, the militants knew that they may – the Americans might be coming again. And so the element of surprise was going to be very difficult to achieve in a mission like this.

    And I think you're right, it does underscore the limitations of military force in trying to rescue captured citizens like Mr. Somers.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Eric Schmidt of "The New York Times" reporting for us from Bahrain via Skype. Thanks so much.

  • ERIC SCHMIDT:

    Thank you.

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