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U.S. was in dark about hostage, envoy says

South African was killed in failed attempt to free American

Robyn Dixon Los Angeles Times

NAIROBI, Kenya – When U.S. special forces carried out a raid in Yemen that led to the deaths of two hostages – one American, the other South African – they were unaware of negotiations to free the South African, U.S. officials said Monday.

South African schoolteacher Pierre Korkie and American freelance journalist Luke Somers were killed Saturday in the raid, aimed at freeing Somers from captivity with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

Questions swirled about the U.S. raid after a South African humanitarian organization, Gift of the Givers, announced afterward that Korkie was to have been released Sunday after an agreement that came after prolonged negotiations. His wife, Yolande, who had been kidnapped with him in May 2013 but released in January, had been told he would be home by Christmas.

The U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, said Monday that the American government was not aware of the negotiations to free Korkie – or even that he was at the same location as Somers.

“The United States was not aware of the progress of the negotiations between The Gift of the Givers and the Yemeni hostage takers, nor of a promise for Pierre Korkie’s release. Moreover, at no time was it apparent that Pierre Korkie was being held in the same space as the American photojournalist Luke Somers,” an embassy statement said.

U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Patrick Gaspard confirmed the gist of the statement – that the United States was unaware that the two hostages were held together or that Korkie’s release was imminent – in an interview with South Africa’s City Press newspaper.

U.S. officials said Saturday that the raid was carried out in cooperation with Yemeni authorities. The head of the Gift of the Givers, Imtiaz Sooliman, said Monday that Yemeni authorities had been kept fully informed of the negotiations on Korkie’s release, the Associated Press reported.

“At all times, the Yemeni government was informed about our actions on the ground. We didn’t do anything in isolation from them,” Sooliman told the AP. The news agency also cited a senior Yemeni official as saying that U.S. officials were present at a briefing on the Korkie negotiations two weeks ago.

South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation has also denied knowledge of the negotiations to free Korkie.

While Somers’ family has blamed the U.S. raid for his death, Korkie’s family has avoided allocating blame.

Korkie’s wife, Yolande, said Sunday that her heart was breaking for herself and her children but that she realized she had a choice as to how to handle the news of his death. “So today we choose to forgive. We choose to love. We choose to rejoice in the memories of Pierre and keep him alive in our hearts,” she said.

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