Obama saw window of opportunity to free hostages

WASHINGTON Wed Jan 25, 2012 6:34pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When President Barack Obama mysteriously congratulated his defense chief while making his way through the crowd awaiting the State of the Union address Tuesday night, the secret hostage rescue mission in Somalia was still being wrapped up.

After days of planning, a U.S. assault team -- including some forces drawn from the same elite Navy SEAL unit that killed Osama bin Laden last year -- freed the American and Danish hostages and killed the kidnappers. But they were still moving to safety when Obama spoke to a joint session of Congress, U.S. officials said.

"Leon. Good job tonight. Good job tonight," said Obama, his informal comments to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta caught on microphone.

Just hours earlier, Obama and Panetta had received classified updates on the mission at the White House.

The operation itself had been in the making for days, with Obama deciding to move forward after U.S. officials identified a narrow window of opportunity to act.

New intelligence emerged last week showing that the health of the American hostage, Jessica Buchanan, was deteriorating rapidly. U.S. officials also gleaned what they called "actionable intelligence" on the kidnapping.

After a 9 p.m. briefing on Monday with his top national security advisers, Obama authorized the rescue operation. On Tuesday, the military decided it was time to move and activated the assault team.

WANTED TO CAPTURE KIDNAPPERS

The U.S. special forces parachuted into a spot near the vicinity of Gadaado in central Somalia, moving on foot to the encampment where the hostages were being held, a U.S. official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Pentagon acknowledged that the special forces team had originally planned to capture -- not kill -- the kidnappers, who were described as heavily armed and in possession of explosives.

"There were very concrete plans for removing the kidnappers and placing them in detention," said George Little, a Pentagon spokesman.

"That opportunity didn't present itself," another Pentagon spokesman, Navy Captain John Kirby, said.

Obama received a half-dozen updates from his top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, throughout the day Tuesday on the movement of the special forces and the progress of the rescue operation. At 6:43 p.m. he received word at the White House that the raid had succeeded and that both hostages were in U.S. hands.

"It was still ongoing when the president was at the podium" delivering the State of the Union address, Kirby said. "I don't want to leave you with the impression that everything was buttoned up by the time they left to go to the Capitol."

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the rescue team took the freed hostages -- Buchanan and Poul Hagen Thisted of Denmark -- to neighboring Djibouti, where they were receiving medical care.

The United States has a platform in Djibouti to monitor al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen and Somalia's al Shabaab, a hardline rebel group with links to al Qaeda. The kidnappers were not believed to have links to militant Islamic groups.

The Somalia raid may be the highest-profile success by U.S. special forces since the bin Laden raid in May -- a major achievement that could bolster Obama as he seeks re-election this year.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that although some Navy SEALs came from the same unit as the one that killed bin Laden in Pakistan, it wasn't clear if any of the same members had participated in both raids. The Pentagon denied that the forces all came from any one service, describing it as a joint operation.

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.

(Additional reporting by Alister Bull; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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