Jessica Buchanan has been a regional education adviser with the Danish Refugee Council's mine clearance unit in Somalia.

Story highlights

Jessica Buchanan and Poul Thisted spent three months in captivity in Somalia

They were part of the Danish Refugee Council's de-mining unit

U.S. special operations forces parachuted into Somalia last week to rescue them

The families of the aid workers express gratitude and request privacy

CNN  — 

An American aid worker freed in Somalia last week after three months in captivity has left for the United States, a senior U.S. official said, as a fellow kidnapped aid worker headed home to see his family.

Jessica Buchanan, 32, departed from Sigonella, Italy, on Monday via a commercial flight, the U.S. official said. It was unclear Tuesday when she may have arrived.

U.S. military forces rescued Buchanan and Poul Thisted, 60, last week. The two were traveling in Somalia as workers for the Danish Refugee Council at the time of their kidnappings.

Abductors seized the two on October 25 in the central Somali town of Galkayo after they visited humanitarian projects there, the refugee council said. Neither was harmed.

On Tuesday, the refugee council released a statement from Thisted saying he had left the Italian island of Sicily to be with his family. He and Buchanan were taken to Sicily following their rescue, the U.S. military said.

“I am grateful for the prayers and support that I have received from everyone throughout this event,” Thisted said in the statement.

The Somali government provides security for nongovernmental organizations such as the refugee council when staffers travel in certain areas of the country, Fredrik Palsson, the group’s global safety adviser, has said.

Known as special protection units, the guards operate only in specific areas. So aid workers must change vehicles and guards when traveling from one region to the next, Palsson said.

The kidnappers paid off one officer, who replaced the regular guards with others who were in on the plot, he said.

The hostages were freed in a dramatic rescue operation in which U.S. special operations forces parachuted into Somalia early Wednesday and moved into the compound where the two hostages were held, U.S. officials said. The nine gunmen holding the hostages were killed.

Somalia’s transitional government welcomed the operation, saying in a statement the rescue “is a great joy to the Somali government and to all Somalis as well as to all right-thinking people everywhere.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney said last week the decision to proceed with the rescue mission was made because “there was information concerning the deteriorating health of Ms. Buchanan.”

But Don Meyer, president of Valley Forge Christian College in Pennsylvania – Buchanan’s alma mater – said he spoke with Buchanan’s family and that those reports were overstated.

In a joint statement issued by the Danish Refugee Council, the families of Buchanan and Thisted expressed relief the two were rescued unharmed.

“We are grateful for all the efforts that have been put into getting them safely back to us and for the fact that a very difficult chapter in our lives is over,” the statement said. It requested privacy as the families “adjust and return to normal life.”

The U.S. Navy SEAL unit that killed Osama bin Laden last year in Pakistan participated in the rescue mission, a U.S. official said, but he did not specify whether any of the same individuals were on both assaults. The SEALs are part of the Naval Special Welfare Development Group, formerly known as SEAL Team Six.

The aid workers were part of the Danish Refugee Council’s de-mining unit, which aims to make civilians safe from land mines and unexploded ordnance.

Buchanan had been employed as a regional education adviser with the mine clearance unit since May. Thisted, a community safety manager with the de-mining unit, had worked in the region since June 2009.

CNN’s Barbara Starr contributed to this report.