WASHINGTON, April 23 (UPI) -- Two al-Qaida hostages, one American and one Italian, were accidentally killed near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border by a U.S. counterterrorism drone strike, the White House said Thursday.
American aid worker Warren Weinstein, an al-Qaida hostage since 2011, and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto, a hostage since 2012, were killed in the January strike. It is the first known instance of the United States accidentally killing hostages in a drone strike.
In a press conference Thursday morning, President Barack Obama took full responsibility for the operation and said officials did not know the two men were being held at the suspected al-Qaida camp. He said he ordered the operation to be declassified so the families of both men could better understand the circumstances, adding they "deserve to know the truth." He added the United States will be conducting an investigation into the events to determine what occurred.
"I profoundly regret what happened," he said, later adding, "It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war ... mistakes and sometimes deadly mistakes can happen."
Weinstein, 73, was abducted just before ending his stint with U.S. Agency for International Development. Lo Porto was taken soon after arriving in Pakistan for humanitarian work.
"The operation targeted an al-Qa'ida-associated compound, where we had no reason to believe either hostage was present, located in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. No words can fully express our regret over this terrible tragedy," the White House said in a written statement.
Weinstein's wife, Elaine, released a statement Thursday saying the family is devastated by the news, adding, "There are no words to do justice to the disappointment and heartbreak we are going through."
She said the family is looking forward to the results of the U.S. investigation, but said Weinstein's captors bear the "ultimate responsibility" in his death.
"The cowardly actions of those who took Warren captive and ultimately to the place and time of his death are not in keeping with Islam, and they will have to face their God to answer for their actions," she said.
Elaine Weinstein added: "I want to thank Congressman John Delaney, Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Sen. Ben Cardin – as well as specific officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation – for their relentless efforts to free my husband.
"Unfortunately, the assistance we received from other elements of the U.S. government was inconsistent and disappointing over the course of three and a half years. We hope that my husband's death and the others who have faced similar tragedies in recent months will finally prompt the U.S. government to take its responsibilities seriously and establish a coordinated and consistent approach to supporting hostages and their families."
The incident underscores the challenges faced by the Central Intelligence Agency and its covert drone operations, expanded under Obama in 2009. Human rights organizations have chastised the operations as a threat to civilians.
In addition to the hostages, officials believe American-born al-Qaida spokesman Adam Gadahn and Ahmed Farouq, an American who was an al-Qaida leader, were killed in separate drone strikes earlier this year.