US forces tried to rescue James Foley and other hostages held by Islamic State militants during a recent secret mission in Syria, say officials, but the captives were nowhere to be found.
It was revealed that US forces exchanged gunfire with IS during the mission earlier in the summer, but they discovered that the captives were not there.
The information was released following the horrific video posted online, purporting to show a British-sounding militant beheading 40-year-old journalist James Foley.
The militant in the video addressed President Obama directly, saying the murder was in retaliation for American airstrikes against IS in Iraq, and threatened the murder of another US journalist, Steven Sotloff, if they continued.
Officials would not say exactly when the operation took place but said it was not in the past couple of weeks. US special forces and other military personnel, backed up by helicopters and planes, dropped into the target zone in Syria and engaged in a firefight with Islamic State militants.
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The incident, in which a number of militants were killed, appeared to be the first direct ground engagement between the US and IS militants, who are seen by other country leaders as a growing threat in the Middle East.
Lisa Monaco, Obama’s top counterterrorism aide, said in a statement that Mr Obama authorised the mission because it was his national security team’s assessment that the hostages were in danger with each passing day.
“The US government had what we believed was sufficient intelligence, and when the opportunity presented itself, the president authorised the Department of Defence to move aggressively to recover our citizens. Unfortunately, that mission was ultimately not successful because the hostages were not present,” she said.
The National Security Council said later on Wednesday it had never intended to disclose the operation. “An overriding concern for the safety of the hostages and for operational security made it imperative that we preserve as much secrecy as possible,” the NSC statement said.
“We only went public today when it was clear a number of media outlets were preparing to report on the operation and that we would have no choice but to acknowledge it.”
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