South African aid group describes hostage talks


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

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.

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 dlowered 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 American officials were "unaware of
ongoing negotiations that had any resolution" between the militants and Gift of the Givers, and
that it was "not altogether clear" to him that the South African government was aware of the

"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 writer Ahmed al-Hajj contributed to this report from Sanaa, Yemen.

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