One member of a US special operations team was killed during an operation to rescue hostages held by Islamic State militants in northern Iraq, the first American killed in ground combat with the militant group, US officials said on Thursday.
“Last night, Iraqi forces, supported by a US Special Operations team in their advise and assist capacity, conducted a complex and highly-successful operation that resulted in the freeing of approximately 70 hostages held by ISIL in an prison near Hawijah, Iraq,” said General Lloyd J. Austin III, commander of US Central Command.
The US launched the operation “after receiving information that the hostages faced imminent mass execution” at the hands of ISIS, Reuters reports citing a statement by Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook. The hostages included 20 members of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF).
A US official confirmed to Reuters that one American was killed. No further information was available on the mission, which local residents and a Kurdish military commander said was carried out in the Hawija area in northern Iraq.
It was the first US serviceman killed in ground-combat operations against Islamic State, which has been the target of daily air strikes in Iraq and Syria by a US-led coalition for more than a year. The American fatality brings the known death toll among the anti-ISIS coalition to three, after a Canadian soldier was killed in friendly-fire in March and ISIS executed Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh in January.
One source in the Hawija area said the operation involved helicopters and targeted a makeshift prison where the Islamic State was holding a number of hostages. The New York Times reports that during the operation Kurdish forces took the lead while US Special Operations Forces, helicopters, and airstrikes provided support.
NBC News, citing unidentified sources, said the operation was requested by the Iraqi government and those rescued were Kurdish fighters. But a US official told Reuters that 69 hostages were rescued. The hostages were all Arabs, and included 20 members of the ISF, citizens of the local town, and members of ISIS that the militants believed were spies.
Another Reuters source in the Hawija area said the Special Operations Forces raided a house where Islamic State commanders were gathering, triggering gun battles and blasts that lasted several hours.
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The Times, citing unidentified Iraqi sources, said that the raid also resulted in the capture of several senior ISIS militants. Cook confirmed in his statement that the operation resulted in the capture of five ISIS members and the death of “a number” of other militants.
Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa, a senior commander of the Kurdish peshmerga forces, confirmed an operation had taken place but said he had no further information about it.
In May, American special-operations forces killed senior Islamic State leader Abu Sayyaf from Tunisia in a raid in Syria. Although Sayyaf was killed, his wife and considerable amounts of intelligence files were seized.
Hawija is a stronghold of Islamic State militants who have captured Kurdish peshmerga fighters in battles.
(Reuters reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington and Isabel Coles in Erbil; Writing by Mohammad Zargham in Washington; Editing by Doina Chiacu)