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Hostages killed in failed rescue

An American photojournalist and a South African teacher held by al Qaida militants in Yemen were killed today during a US-led rescue attempt, a raid US president Barack Obama said he ordered over an "imminent danger" to the reporter.

Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula previously posted a video online threatening to kill photographer Luke Somers, prompting a second rescue attempt for him by American forces backed by Yemeni ground troops.

But an aid group helping negotiate the release of South African Pierre Korkie said he was to be freed on Sunday and his wife was told only that morning: "The wait is almost over."

A senior Obama administration official said militants tried to kill Mr Somers just before the raid, wounding him. US commandos took Mr Somers to a Navy ship in the region where he died, the official said.

In a statement, Mr Obama did not address Mr Korkie by name, only saying he "authorised the rescue of any other hostages held in the same location as Luke". The South African government did not immediately comment on Mr Korkie's death.

Information "indicated that Luke's life was in imminent danger", Obama said. "Based on this assessment, and as soon as there was reliable intelligence and an operational plan, I authorised a rescue attempt."

Lucy Somers, the photojournalist's sister, told the Associated Press that she and her father learned of her 33-year-old brother's death from FBI agents this morning.

"We ask that all of Luke's family members be allowed to mourn in peace," she said from near London.

Yemen's national security chief, Ali al-Ahmadi, said the militants planned to kill Luke Somers today, prompting the joint mission.

"Al Qaida promised to conduct the execution (of Somers) today so there was an attempt to save them but unfortunately they shot the hostage before or during the attack," al-Ahmadi said at a conference in Manama, Bahrain. "He was freed but unfortunately he was dead."

The operation began before dawn in Yemen's southern Shabwa province, a stronghold of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the country's local branch of the terror group. A US drone struck the Wadi Abdan area first, followed by strafing runs by jets and Yemeni ground forces moving in, a Yemeni security official said. Helicopters also flew in more forces to raid the house where the two men were held, he said.

At least nine al Qaida militants were killed in an initial drone strike, another security official said.

Both Mr Somers and Mr Korkie "were murdered by the AQAP terrorists during the course of the operation," US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel said from Kabul, Afghanistan.

The operation marked the second failed rescue by US and Yemeni forces looking for Mr Somers, among the roughly dozen hostages believed to be held by al Qaida militants in Yemen.

On November 25, American special operations forces and Yemeni soldiers raided a remote al Qaida safe haven in a desert region near the Saudi border, freeing eight captives, including Yemenis, a Saudi and an Ethiopian. Somers, a Briton and four others had been moved days earlier, officials later said.

Following the first raid, al Qaida militants released a video on Thursday that showed Somers, threatening to kill him in three days if the United States didn't meet the group's unspecified demands or if another rescue was attempted.

Mr Somers, who was born in Britain, was kidnapped in September 2013 as he left a supermarket in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, said Fakhri al-Arashi, chief editor of the National Yemen, where Mr Somers worked as a copy editor and a freelance photographer during the 2011 uprising in Yemen.

Before her brother's death, Lucy Somers released an online video describing him as a romantic who "always believes the best in people." She ended with the plea: "Please let him live."

In a statement, Mr Somers' father, Michael, also called his son "a good friend of Yemen and the Yemeni people" and asked for his safe release.

Mr Korkie was kidnapped in the Yemeni city of Taiz in May 2013, along with his wife Yolande. Militants later released his wife after a non-governmental group, Gift of the Givers, helped negotiate for her freedom. Those close to Mr Korkie said al-Qaida militants demanded a ransom for his release.

"The psychological and emotional devastation to Yolande and her family will be compounded by the knowledge that Pierre was to be released by al Qaida tomorrow," Gift of Givers said in a statement today.

"A team of Abyan leaders met in Aden this morning and were preparing the final security and logistical arrangements, related to hostage release mechanisms, to bring Pierre to safety and freedom. It is even more tragic that the words we used in a conversation with Yolande at 5:59 this morning was: 'The wait is almost over'."

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