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AP Enterprise: War experience aids hostage rescues

By Jason Straziuso

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Feb. 2 2012 8:43 p.m. MST

FILE - This undated file photo provided by the Hallums family shows Susan Hallums, right, and her ex-husband, Roy Hallums, who was kidnapped by gunmen in Iraq in 2004 and held for 311 days before U.S. Army Delta Force operators rescued him from a small, underground room. U.S. special forces units are compiling a string of successful hostage rescues, thanks to improved technology and a decade of wartime experience. But despite technological advances like thermal imaging and surveillance drones, the raids remain high-risk. (AP Photo/Hallums Family, File) NO SALES

Associated Press

NAIROBI, Kenya — Roy Hallums was enduring his 311th day of captivity, blindfolded, his hands and feet bound, stuffed into a hole under the floor of a farm building outside Baghdad. He heard a commotion upstairs and managed to get the blindfold off. Delta Force troops broke open the hatch. An American soldier jumped down.

"He looks at me and points and says, 'Are you Roy?' I say 'yes,' and he yells back up the stairs: 'Jackpot!'" Hallums recalled in a phone interview with The Associated Press six years after his rescue.

Another mission by elite U.S. troops took place just last week, this time in Somalia, resulting in an American and a Danish hostage being rescued and nine kidnappers killed.

U.S. special forces units are compiling a string of successful hostage rescues, thanks to improved technology and a decade of wartime experience. But despite technological advances like thermal imaging and surveillance drones, the raids remain high-risk. Success or failure can depend on a snap decision made by a rescuer with bullets flying all around, or determination by kidnappers to kill any captives before they can be freed.

In 2010, the U.S. Navy's SEAL Team 6 tried to rescue Linda Norgrove, a Scottish aid worker, from her Taliban captors in Afghanistan. She was killed by a grenade thrown in haste by one of the American commandoes.

The kidnappings of foreigners living or traveling overseas continues unabated, as it has for decades. While the probability of a person being kidnapping is low, abductions do occur regularly, especially in high-risk nations like Somalia, Pakistan, Mexico and Colombia.

Even those who are supremely aware of the risks can disappear. In December 2006, Felix Batista, an American anti-kidnapping expert and negotiator for hostage releases, was kidnapped in Saltillo, Mexico, and hasn't been heard from since.

Just last Tuesday, armed tribesmen in Yemen kidnapped six United Nations workers: an Iraqi, a Palestinian, a Colombian, a German and two Yemenis. On Jan. 20, kidnappers grabbed an American and held him for a week before releasing him, perhaps after a ransom was paid.

U.S. troops have been tasked with rescues mostly in areas where American forces were already stationed, like Afghanistan, Iraq and around Somalia, said Taryn Evans, an expert on kidnappings at AKE, a risk mitigation company outside London. As they've gotten more experienced, they've gotten better.

In 2009, SEAL sharpshooters killed three Somali pirates holding the American captain of the Maersk Alabama hostage in a lifeboat. And late last month, U.S. Navy SEALs parachuted into Somalia under cover of night, then moved on foot to where captors were holding an American woman and a Danish man who had been kidnapped together in October. The SEALs killed nine captors and rescued the two hostages while suffering no casualties themselves in the Jan. 25 operation.

Their skill in carrying out such missions has been honed by America's two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Seth Jones, a civilian adviser to the commanding general of the U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan from 2009-2011.

"They have conducted so many operations in these areas, from hostage rescues to strike operations to capture-kill missions. What it does is significantly improves the competence of special operations," Jones told The Associated Press. He said commando missions are "now routine."

Though Navy SEAL Team 6 rescued the American and the Dane, one American kidnapped in January in Somalia remains behind. His captors told AP they moved him several times in the hours immediately after the SEAL raid, out of fear the U.S. military could try another rescue attempt.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said this week the U.S. is "very concerned" about the remaining hostage and that Washington is following the case closely and taking it very seriously.

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