Kabul: US special forces swooped in Saturday to rescue an American held hostage by al Qaeda in Yemen, but their cover was blown near the militants` lair and Luke Somers was fatally shot.
The failed pre-dawn raid to free the 33-year-old photojournalist also left South African hostage Pierre Korkie dead, just a day before he was expected to be released.
President Barack Obama accused the jihadists of "barbaric murder" and said he had authorised the rescue operation because Somers`s life was believed to be "in imminent danger."
"We had indications, very good indications, that they were going to murder Mr Somers perhaps as early as the next day," a senior US defence official said.
"It was either act now and take the risk, or let that deadline pass. And no one was willing to do that," the official added.
"They had said they would execute him within 72 hours but we believed, we had good indications through various sources of information that we get, that they had moved that deadline up, and that we believed that they were preparing to kill him, on what would have been Saturday morning our time, which is why we moved as fast as we could."
Obama and US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel approved the daring raid Friday morning Washington time and commandos were thrown into action just hours later, according to US officials who said the mission was carried out by US forces, though Yemeni authorities were informed.
Hagel, who was en route to Afghanistan when the operation went down, was getting frequent updates to his air force plane and officials in Washington were monitoring real time.
The special forces flew in around 5:00 pm (2200 GMT) Friday Washington time -- 1:00 am Yemen time, the dead of night -- by tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft and were dropped off at a location 10 kilometres (six miles) from where the hostages were being held in the southeastern province of Shabwa.
The commandos made their way by foot across dry, hilly terrain to the Al-Qaeda militants` hideout, but any hopes they had of using the cover of darkness to move stealthily in for the rescue were dashed when they were discovered about 100 metres (330 feet) from the compound.
A short but intense firefight -- lasting five to 10 minutes -- erupted, during which the commandos killed at least five militants, the senior defence official said. There were no US casualties.The militants, who had the area well protected, "were certainly on edge" because of a US raid on another hideout in November looking for Somers and other Western hostages, but it appears they had been moved before US forces could reach them on that occasion.
When the special forces got to the two hostages in the latest rescue, both had been shot and were seriously hurt.
"What we know, as the assaulting force neared the compound, they lost the element of surprise," said the senior defence official, who was with Hagel in the Afghan capital Kabul.
"When the element of surprise was lost, and a firefight ensued, we believe that is when they (the hostages) were shot."
The commandos spirited Somers and Korkie away from the hideout about 30 minutes after the firefight and back to the aircraft, where surgeons and medics desperately tried to save them, the official said.
However, one of the men -- it is not clear who -- died en route to a naval ship, the USS Makin Island, and the other died while on the operating table aboard the vessel.