An American and an Italian who had been held hostage for several years by al Qaeda in the border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan were inadvertently killed in a U.S. counter terrorism operation in January, President Barack Obama said on Thursday.
“I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families,” Obama said in an appearance at the White House.
The operation in which American doctor Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto were killed also resulted in the death of an American al Qaeda leader, Ahmed Farouq, the White House said. Another American al Qaeda member, Adam Gadahn, was also killed, likely in a separate operation, the White House added.
U.S. government sources said the operations involved drone strikes.
Obama said he took “full responsibility” for the operation that killed the hostages, adding, “It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight (against) terrorists specifically, mistakes, sometimes deadly mistakes, can occur.”
The United States had believed the target was an al Qaeda compound with no civilians present, and the operation was thought to have killed dangerous al Qaeda members, Obama said.
Obama said he had ordered details of the operation to be declassified, but it was fully consistent with counterterrorism efforts in the region.
He took no questions after his statement.
Weinstein, 73 was abducted in Lahore, Pakistan, in 2011 while working for a U.S. consulting firm. Al Qaeda had asked to trade him for members of the Islamist militant group being held by the United States.
Weinstein was seen in videos released in May 2012 and December 2013, asking for Obama to intervene on his behalf and saying he was suffering from heart problems and asthma.
Lo Porto had been missing in Pakistan since January 2012.
“As a husband and as a father, I cannot begin to imagine the anguish that the Weinstein and Lo Porto port families are enduring today … I know that there is nothing that I can ever say or do to ease the heartache,” Obama said.
The White House said that while the operation “was lawful and conducted consistent with our counterterrorism policies, we are conducting a thorough independent review to understand fully what happened and how we can prevent this type of tragic incident in the future.”
Weinstein’s wife, Elaine, said in a statement that his family was devastated and still did not fully understand all the facts surrounding his death.
“We were so hopeful that those in the U.S. and Pakistani governments with the power to take action and secure his release would have done everything possible to do so and there are no words to do justice to the disappointment and heartbreak we are going through,” she wrote.
Italian media said Lo Porto, who was from Palermo, Sicily, was kidnapped three days after arriving in Pakistan on Jan. 19, 2012, to work for a German organization building houses for victims of a 2010 flood.
Another man was kidnapped with him but later freed in October 2014 by German special forces.
Obama described Weinstein and Lo Porto as “two humanitarians who came from different countries but were united by the spirit of service.”
He said Weinstein, who lived in the Washington suburb of Rockville, Maryland, had devoted his life to service as a member of the Peace Corps and more recently as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development in a poverty-fighting program.
Obama said he had spoken with Weinstein’s family.
The White House said while both Farouq and Gadahn were al Qaeda members, “neither was specifically targeted, and we did not have information indicating their presence at the sites of these operations.”