The Navy SEALs caught the kidnappers by surprise and rescued Jessica Buchanan and Poul Thisted in Somalia. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports.
WASHINGTON -- As two aid workers freed by a Navy SEAL team flew out of Somalia to be reunited with family, details emerged Wednesday about the rescue operation that the Pentagon says left nine captors dead.
Vice President Joe Biden told NBC's "TODAY" show that the U.S. decided to stage the rescue because of concerns that the health of American Jessica Buchanan "was beginning to decline."
"We wanted to act," Biden said.
Buchanan, 32, and Dane Poul Thisted, 60, were kidnapped on Oct. 25, and then held for ransom. They both work for the nonprofit Danish Demining Group and had just finished training Somalis on how to clear mines when they were captured.
A Pentagon spokesperson in Washington characterized the captors as "criminal suspects," adding that the U.S. military has no firm indication they were connected to piracy or to any terror group, NBC News reported.
The first official recognition of the rescue operation came Tuesday night in Washington from President Barack Obama himself.
Danish Refugee Council
Poul Hagen Thisted
As the president entered the House chambers to give his State of the Union Speech, he pointed to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta standing in the crowd and said, "Leon. Good job tonight. Good job tonight."
The president made no mention of the hostage rescue, but finished his speech with a reference to the killing of Osama bin Laden last May in a similar operation to the one conducted by Navy SEALs Tuesday night.
Immediately after the speech, Obama telephoned Buchanan's father from the Capitol to tell him that she was safe and "on her way home," according to the White House.
According to the U.S. officials, two teams of Navy SEALs landed by helicopter near the compound where the two hostages were being held.
As the SEALs approached the compound on foot gunfire broke out, the U.S. officials said.
Pentagon officials said the Americans originally intended to capture alive and detain the kidnappers. Instead, for reasons that have not been explained publicly, they killed all nine of them.
Tuesday's rescue was carried out by the same SEAL unit that killed Osama bin Laden, two U.S. officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the operation. The unit is the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, also known as SEAL Team 6. The members of the unit who carried out the rescue operation were not the same personnel as those who killed bin Laden, the officials said.
Panetta's press secretary, George Little, said the kidnappers were heavily armed, with explosives "nearby." He said neither the two hostages nor any members of the U.S. assault team were injured.
An official for the group the finances the Danish Demining Group said Buchanan and Thisted were flown to Djibouti and would soon be moved to a "safe haven."
The Danish Refugee Council official, Mary Ann Olsen, added that Buchanan, who reportedly was running low on some medication, did not need to be hospitalized.
"One of the first things Poul and Jessica were able to do was to call their families and say they were freed," Olsen said. "They will be reunited with their families as quickly as possible," Olsen said.
Buchanan lived in neighboring Kenya before Somalia, and worked at a school in Nairobi called the Rosslyn Academy from 2007-09, said Rob Beyer, the dean of students.
She graduated in 2006 from Valley Forge Christian College, a small suburban Philadelphia school.
This article includes reporting by NBC Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski and The Associated Press.
More from msnbc.com and NBC News:
- 3 years after US accident, boat washes up in Spain
- American hostage in Somalia rescued by Navy SEALs
- Report: Amanda Knox 'loves Italy' and might return
- Envoy: US dead dishonored by Afghan split 'lies'