JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The government in Yemen, a U.S. ally, was kept informed about a South African aid group's efforts to negotiate the release of a South African hostage before he died in a U.S. raid on al-Qaida militants, the head of the aid group said Monday.
The comments by Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of Gift of the Givers, came amid questions about what officials of various governments knew, if anything, about efforts to release South African Pierre Korkie, who was said to be close to being freed even as another hostage with him, American Luke Somers, appeared to face imminent execution.
The two men were killed Saturday during a U.S.-led rescue attempt. The U.S. ambassador in South Africa said the United States did not know that Sooliman and his organization believed the South African hostage was to be released Sunday under a deal struck with al-Qaida.
"At all times, the Yemeni government was informed about our actions on the ground," Sooliman said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We didn't do anything in isolation from them."
Sooliman said he had considered the possibility that Yemeni authorities were talking to American allies about the case, but said he did not want to "delve" into speculation and took the Americans at their word.
"If they say they didn't know, they didn't know," he said.
Yemeni authorities knew about negotiations to secure Korkie's release and an "exchange of information" about the hostage took place two weeks ago in the presence of American officials in Sanaa, Yemen's capital, a senior Yemeni intelligence official. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The Americans, however, did not "officially" ask for information about the South African hostage, the official said.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest declined to comment on that meeting, but reiterated that the U.S. didn't have information about the private negotiations the aid group says were underway to secure Korkie's release.
"We obviously mourn the death of Mr. Korkie in the same way that we mourn the death of Mr. Somers," he told reporters in Washington.
He said the raid in Yemen, although unsuccessful, should be seen by militants "as a clear sign of these president's resolve to do everything possible to rescue Americans who are being held hostage anywhere around the globe."
Korkie, a teacher, was abducted with his wife Yolande in the Yemeni city of Taiz in May 2013. She was released in January after negotiations by Gift of the Givers, which has an office in Yemen. The group has provided disaster relief in Somalia and other countries.
Pierre Korkie's captors lowered a ransom demand of $3 million to $700,000 after realizing Korkie's family and friends could not raise the money, according to Sooliman. Eventually, a deal was reached under which tribal leaders would get a $200,000 "facilitation fee" in exchange for Korkie's release, he said.
U.S. Ambassador Patrick Gaspard said in South Africa that it was "not altogether clear" to him that the South African government was aware of the talks.
"We were just completely unaware of those developments and had to act hastily," the ambassador said in a telephone interview with the AP. He said it appeared that the negotiations for Korkie's release were "pretty far down the track."
The U.S. decided to carry out the raid because the militants had threatened to kill Somers, Gaspard said.
"At no time was it apparent that Pierre Korkie was being held in the same space as the American photojournalist Luke Somers," the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria said in a statement.
Washington views al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula as the most dangerous branch of the terror group as it has been linked to a number of foiled or botched attacks on the U.S. homeland. The U.S. has conducted drone strikes in Yemen targeting suspected militants and offers aid to the country's military. Civilian casualties in the strikes have angered many.
Some tribal figures involved in negotiations for Korkie's release were recently killed in a drone strike, Sooliman said.
This year, Gift of the Givers received reports from people claiming to have seen Korkie in different locations and with different hostages, and also alone with his captors. Sooliman said it was possible that Korkie and Somers, the American hostage, were put together by their captors "at the last minute" before the raid.
Associated Press writers Nedra Pickler in Washington and Ahmed al-Hajj in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.