An account by the director of an aid group that negotiated the release of a South African hostage who was killed Saturday during a failed U.S rescue mission in Yemen raises new questions about the planning for the raid.
Dr. Imtiaz Sooliman, founding director of the Gift of Givers Foundation in South Africa, told McClatchy in a telephone interview on Tuesday that his group had kept the Yemeni national security agency and the South African ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who is accredited to Yemen, fully informed of plans for the release of Pierre Korkie, whose death in the raid came only hours before he was to have been freed.
U.S. officials have said they were unaware that Korkie was about to be released or even who he was when they planned the operation to free American photojournalist Luke Somers, who also died in the raid.
It’s uncertain who would have been responsible for knowing about Korkie or sharing the information. According to U.S. officials, the president of Yemen, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was briefed on the operation and gave his permission.
A senior U.S. defense official said Tuesday that the State Department handled the majority of the coordination between the U.S. and Yemen in the run-up to the attempted rescue. And while the U.S. military has contact with its Yemeni counterparts as part of ongoing relations, the U.S. defense attache in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, was not notified that Korkie and Somers might be held together, according to the official, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the situation with reporters.
It’s also not known what intelligence the U.S. rescue team of about 40 members had when it arrived a few miles outside the village of Abadan in rugged central Yemen before dawn Saturday. The team’s plan called for the would-be rescuers to hike to the village and storm the building where they thought Somers was being held. Before they could launch their attack, however, the kidnappers became aware of the rescue team’s presence and shot Somers and Korkie.
A lack of coordination between U.S. government agencies has been a consistent complaint of relatives of American hostages held overseas. The FBI, the State Department and the intelligence community all have responsibilities in such a case, but family members have complained that the agencies often don’t share information.
In South Africa, Sooliman said his group’s project director in Yemen, Anas al Hamati, had regularly updated Yemeni authorities during months of negotiations for the release of Korkie.
“At every step we made sure to inform them of everything that was happening,” Sooliman said. “The Yemeni government knew about the whole process from the first day to the last.”
The South African ambassador in Saudi Arabia was also kept up to date on developments and had even arranged a passport for Korkie to use after his release on a planned flight to Istanbul, Sooliman said.
It remains unclear, however, whether South Africa informed the United States about the release plans or how widely the information was shared within the Yemeni government.
Sooliman said that Korkie’s release had been arranged after months of tortuous negotiations during which his group, a disaster relief organization, tried to use its contacts and reputation in Yemen to secure the release of the hostage.
Korkie, a teacher, was kidnapped with his wife, Yolande Korkie, in May 2013. With the mediation of Gift of the Givers, she was released without a ransom in January, but the kidnappers demanded $3 million for her husband’s release.
They warned that if the payment was not made they would deliver Korkie’s severed head “in a box,” Sooliman recalled.
In subsequent face-to-face and phone contacts between Gift of the Givers’ Hamati and al Qaida members, the kidnappers grew increasingly hostile, demanding the ransom and even threatening Hamati, and the efforts reached an impasse, Sooliman said.
In June, Gift of Givers managed to revive contacts with the kidnappers through tribal leaders with the aim of maintaining a dialogue and keeping the hostage alive.
During the negotiations, a few of the go-betweens were killed in at least one drone strike as they traveled to meet al Qaida members in their remote strongholds, Sooliman said.
On Nov. 26 the tribal leaders informed the charity that they had secured agreement for Korkie’s release in exchange for a payment of $200,000. Sooliman said he understood that the payment was not a ransom, but a mediation fee to be shared with the tribal leaders as compensation for their risky mission.
After the money was raised from donors and friends of Yolande Korkie, a convoy was set to leave Saturday to pick up Pierre Korkie.
The South African ambassador in Saudi Arabia had arranged a passport for Korkie’s departure. “We told him: ‘The moment we have him, we’ll call you,’” Sooliman said.
In a text message to Yolande Korkie early Saturday morning, Sooliman wrote: “Your waiting is almost over.”
Two hours later, his phone rang. On the line was a South African police hostage negotiator with grim news from the U.S. embassy: Korkie was dead.
On Tuesday, his body was flown back to South Africa.
“I visualized something different, him holding me in his arms, hearing his soft voice,” Yolande Korkie told reporters after her husband’s remains arrived at Waterkloof Airforce Base. “This morning, there were intense emotions of longing. We will never have him physically again, but in our hearts he will never die.”
Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this story from Washington.