As Barack Obama walked out to deliver his State of the Union address on Tuesday night he stopped to congratulate his Defence Secretary on a "good job tonight". Unknown to his audience, just hours earlier the commando unit that killed Osama bin Laden last year had carried out another daring raid, this time in Somalia.
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When the address got under way in Washington, US Navy Seals were flying through the darkness of the early hours in the Horn of Africa, along with two aid workers rescued from a gang of Somali kidnappers, nine of whom were killed in the operation.
Even though Mr Obama didn't mention the mission, which was still under way, he did pay warm tribute to the team that killed al-Qa'ida's leader. By yesterday morning, the choreography was striking. In his speech to Congress, Mr Obama said one of his "proudest possessions" was the flag the US commando team, Seal Team 6, had taken with them on the Bin Laden mission.
Hours later, a statement on the Somalia raid said: "As Commander-in-Chief, I could not be prouder of the troops who carried out this mission."
An American aid worker, Jessica Buchanan, 32, and her Danish colleague Poul Hagen Thisted, 60, who were captured while working on a demining project in central Somalia three months ago, were yesterday "on their way to be reunited with their families", according to their employers, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC).
The rescue marked an increased willingness by the US to send troops into Somalia, a lawless and dangerous country that, after 21 years without a central government, is beset by pirate gangs, rival clan militias and a powerful Islamist insurgency. US engagement with Somalia is haunted by the deaths of 19 troops in a botched mission in Mogadishu in 1993, immortalised in the film Black Hawk Down. But more recently the Pentagon has been willing to use Special Forces for assassination missions and drone strikes against suspected terrorists in the country.
Witnesses in Galkayo, a town near where the kidnappers were believed to be, reported seeing helicopters after 2am yesterday and gunfire was heard a bit later.
US officials said that Seal Team 6 – the same unit used in the Bin Laden raid in Pakistan last May but not necessarily the same commandos – parachuted to a site about a mile from where the aid workers were being held and approached on foot.
The raiders found the gang asleep after an evening of chewing the narcotic khat, a Somali man named Bile Hussein, who knew the gang but was not there at the time, told the Associated Press. He said three Somalis had been taken by the US rescue team. By dawn, the bodies of another nine gang members had been brought to Galkayo and some reports suggested as many as six gang members had been captured.
There have been kidnappings in Somalia and neighbouring Kenya after hijackings at sea were made more difficult by the presence of foreign navies off the coast. The DRC pair – among the very few Western aid workers prepared to work inside Somalia – were seized by two trucks of gunmen in October. The Copenhagen-based group had tried without success to negotiate their release with the help of Somali elders in the area.
Al-Shabaab, the Islamist militia that controls parts of Somalia, has been blamed for some of the kidnappings, but the group has denied involvement.
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Michael Scott Moore
Freelance writer and dual US-German citizen Michael Scott Moore was kidnapped on 21 January this year by armed militia in central Somalia.
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The Médecins Sans Frontières aid workers were abducted from Dadaab refugee camp near the Kenya-Somalia border in October 2011. They remain in central Somalia.
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