An American and an Italian held hostage by al-Qaida, as well as two Americans working with the terror group, were inadvertently killed by U.S. drone strikes earlier this year, the government revealed Thursday.
President Barack Obama said he took "full responsibility" for the counterterror missions and offered his "grief and condolences" to the families of the hostages.
Obama defended the legality of the January drone strike that killed the hostages and said there had been no evidence that the two men were present at what the U.S. had determined was an al-Qaida compound.
"Based on the intelligence that we had obtained at the time, including hundreds of hours of surveillance, we believed that this was an al-Qaida compound, that no civilians were present and that capturing these terrorists was not possible," Obama said at the White House. "And we do believe that the operation did take out dangerous members of al-Qaida."
Among those believed killed in the strike was Ahmed Farouq, who the White House said was an American who was an al-Qaida leader. U.S. officials have also concluded that Adam Gadahn, an American who had served as a spokesman for the terror network, was killed in a separate operation in January.
The White House said neither Farouq nor Gadahn were intentionally targeted in the strikes and the U.S. did not have information indicating their presence at the site of the operations.
A U.S. government official said the drone strikes occurred on Jan. 14 and Jan. 19 in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The official was not authorized to discuss details of the attacks and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The president made no mention of Farouq and Gadahn. Instead, he focused his remarks on American Warren Weinstein, who had been held by al-Qaida since 2011, and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto, who had been held since 2012.
Obama expressed regret for the deaths of the two men and offered condolences to their families.
"I realize there are no words that can ever equal their loss," he said.
Weinstein, 73, was abducted in Lahore, Pakistan, in 2011 while working for a U.S. consulting firm. Al-Qaida 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 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, Emily, 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-Qaida members, "neither was specifically targeted, and we did not have information indicating their presence at the sites of these operations."
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