U.S. special forces swooped into Somalia on Wednesday and rescued an American and a Dane after a shootout with pirates holding them hostage, in a rare raid into the Horn of Africa nation to free foreign captives.
The aid workers, American Jessica Buchanan and Dane Poul Hagen Thisted, were kidnapped from the town of Galkayo in the semi-autonomous Galmudug region in October while working for the Danish De-mining Group (DDG).
"This is yet another message to the world that the United States of America will stand strongly against any threats to our people," U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement.
Military helicopters ferried elite troops to the pirate camp in scrubland close to Haradheere, a major pirate base in central Somalia, Washington's Germany-based Africa Command (AFRICOM) said in a statement.
"All nine captors were killed during the assault," it said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta confirmed no American soldiers were killed in the operation.
The Danish Refugee Council said Buchanan and Thisted were now at a safe location. Media reports said they had been flown to neighboring Djibouti, home to the only U.S. military base in Africa and France's largest base on the continent.
Somali pirate gangs typically seize ships in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden and hold the crews until they receive a ransom. The kidnapping of the aid workers in Galkayo was an unusual case of a pirate gang being behind a seizure on land.
U.S. and French forces have intervened to rescue pirate hostages at sea, but attacks on pirate bases are very rare.
The U.S. raid was unlikely to deter pirates who rake in tens of millions of dollars each year in ransoms.
Danish Foreign Minister Villy Sovndal earlier said the poor health of one hostage had led Washington to take action and said the rescue operation did not necessarily pave the way for further copycat missions.
People involved with the hostages had said earlier this month Buchanan was suffering from a possible kidney infection.
"About 12 U.S. helicopters are now at Galkayo. We thank the United States. Pirates have spoilt the whole region's peace and ethics. They are mafia," Mohamed Ahmed Alim, leader of the Galmudug region, told Reuters.
He was speaking from Hobyo, a pirate base north of Haradheere, where he said he was negotiating the release of an American journalist seized on Saturday, also from Galkayo.
"GOOD JOB TONIGHT"
Pirates and local elders say the American journalist and a number of sailors from India, South Korea, the Philippines and Denmark are being held by pirate gangs.
A British tourist kidnapped from Kenya on September 11, 2011 is also still held captive in Somalia.
America's NBC News, citing U.S. officials, said two teams of U.S. Navy SEALs (special forces) landed by helicopter and rescued the hostages after a gun battle with the kidnappers.
The freed hostages were then taken by helicopter to an undisclosed location.
Obama was overheard congratulating Panetta, apparently for the success of the operation, as Obama entered the House of Representatives chamber on Tuesday for his annual State of the Union speech.
"Leon. Good job tonight. Good job tonight," Obama said.
Panetta visited U.S. troops in Djibouti last month on his way to Afghanistan and Iraq, in a stopover that reflected Obama's growing focus on the militant and piracy threats from Yemen and the eastern edge of Africa.
In Djibouti, the United States has a platform to monitor al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen and Somalia's al Shabaab, a hardline rebel group with links to al Qaeda.
Somalia's government applauded the mission and said it welcomed any operation against pirates.
U.S. special forces killed senior al Qaeda militant Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in a raid in southern Somalia in 2009. Several other al Qaeda or al Shabaab officials have been killed in U.S. drone strikes in Somalia over the past few years.
It was also U.S. Navy SEALs who killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a raid on his Pakistan home in May.
A brief history of foreigners kidnapped in Africa
April 2008 - Gunmen seized a Briton and a Kenyan working on a U.N.-funded project.
July 14, 2009 - Somali gunmen kidnapped two French security advisers in Mogadishu. One of them, Marc Aubriere, escaped on August 26.
November 8, 2010 - The European Union anti-piracy task force said it had rescued a South African yachtsman after he was left behind by Somali pirates. Two other South African crew members were taken ashore as hostages.
October 25, 2011 - Three aid workers attached to the Danish Demining Group were kidnapped in the north of the country, the group said. One is a Somali man, two are international staff members, an American, Jessica Buchanan, and a Dane, Poul Thisted. The foreigners were freed on January 25 after a raid by U.S. forces who killed nine pirates and captured another five.
January 2, 2012 - Gunmen kidnapped an American in the Somali town of Galkayo in the semi-autonomous Galmudug region. A senior military official said he was part of a two-man group who had been in the region under the pretext of being journalists.
January 21, 2012 - Michael Scott Moore, a U.S. writer with dual U.S.-German citizenship, was kidnapped by armed militia south of Galkayo in the Galmudug region in central Somalia.
September 11, 2011 - Gunmen raided the Kiwayu Safari Village, shooting dead British publishing executive David Tebbutt, escaping by boat taking his wife, Judith, with them to Somalia.
October 11, 2011 - Six armed men stormed a house on the island of Manda on Kenya's northern coast, grabbed 66-year-old wheelchair-bound Marie Dedieu and carried her to a boat that took her to Somalia. Paris said on October 19 that Dedieu had died.
October 13, 2011 - Two Spanish female aid workers employed by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), Blanca Thiebaut and Montserrat Serra, were kidnapped at Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp near Somalia. They have since been moved to central Somalia.
-- The rebel Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF) claimed responsibility on January 21 for the kidnapping of two German tourists and two Ethiopians in an attack by gunmen in northern Ethiopia's remote Afar region on January 17.
-- Two Germans, one Austrian, and two Hungarians were killed in the same attack. One Hungarian was also wounded. Ethiopia said the victims were part of a 27-member party that also included U.S., Australian and Belgian nationals.
November 23, 2011 - Two French men, an engineer and a technician who work for a local cement firm were abducted from their hotel in the town of Hombori, about 200 km (125 miles) west of the northern city of Gao in northern Mali.
November 25, 2011 - Gunmen seized three people and killed a fourth on a street in the northern Mali town of Timbuktu. Those kidnapped were from South Africa, the Netherlands and Sweden.
-- Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for both November kidnappings.
February 2, 2011 - A 53-year-old Italian woman, Maria Sandra Mariani, was kidnapped by al Qaeda insurgents while on a tourist trip to the Sahara desert in southeastern Algeria.
October 23, 2011 - Three foreign workers were abducted from a refugee camp near Tindouf in western Algeria. The kidnappers had crossed from Mali.
-- Spain named the two as Ainhoa Fernandez de Rincon and Enric Gonyalons. The Italian was Rossella Urru.
May 12, 2011 - Two engineers, a Briton and an Italian, working for Italian construction firm B. Stabilini in Kebbi State in northern Nigeria, were kidnapped in the town of Birnin-Kebbi.
September 16, 2010 - Seven foreigners were kidnapped in Arlit, in Niger's northern uranium mining zone. AQIM claimed responsibility and demanded a 90 million euro ($130 million) ransom. Earlier in January the group threatened to kill its prisoners if France and its allies attacked its bases in Mali.
-- Some of the foreigners, including five French nationals, worked for French firms and were taken by their captors to Mali the next day.
February 25, 2011 - A Togolese, a Malagasy man and the French wife of one of the employees were freed and handed over to authorities in Niger.