Rescued journalist criticised over safety risks

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The Independent Online

Questions were raised today over the death in Afghanistan of a paratrooper in a raid to free a kidnapped journalist who reportedly defied security advice not to go into the Taliban-controlled territory.

The soldier died in yesterday's daring pre-dawn operation to rescue New York Times journalist Stephen Farrell, 46.

Mr Farrell's interpreter Sultan Munadi was also killed in the raid.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown hailed the "courage" of the dead soldier, believed to be from 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment.

But the mission has reportedly provoked anger among senior Army officers because Mr Farrell apparently ignored warnings from Afghan police and village elders not to venture into the Taliban-controlled area where he was taken hostage.

The journalist, who holds joint Irish and British citizenship, was snatched with Mr Munadi last Saturday as he reported on the aftermath of a Nato air strike in which at least 70 people were killed.

They had travelled to the northern province of Kunduz to investigate reports of civilian deaths in the airstrike on two hijacked fuel tankers.

One senior Army source told The Daily Telegraph: "When you look at the number of warnings this person had it makes you really wonder whether he was worth rescuing, whether it was worth the cost of a soldier's life.

"In the future, special forces might think twice in a similar situation."

Robin Horsfall, a former SAS officer, told Channel 4 News: "Some questions will be asked if a journalist has behaved in a reckless fashion and put them in this position.

"There's going to be some resentment."

On the death of the paratrooper, Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor of The Sun, told Sky News: "Was it worth it? No, it was not, in my opinion."

He added: "When (journalists) defer common sense, they are on their own."

This is the second time Mr Farrell has been kidnapped. He was abducted at gunpoint near Fallujah in Iraq in April 2004 while on assignment for The Times.

Describing the dramatic rescue to the New York Times he said: "We were all in a room, the Talibs all ran, it was obviously a raid.

"We thought they would kill us. We thought 'should we go out?'

"There were bullets all around us. I could hear British and Afghan voices."

Mr Farrell said his interpreter moved forward, shouting "Journalist, journalist" but fell in a hail of bullets.

Mr Farrell said he dived into a ditch and after a minute or two heard more British voices.

He said he shouted "British hostage" and as he moved towards the voices he saw Mr Munadi lying on the ground motionless.

"He was lying in the same position as he fell. That's all I know.

"I saw him go down in front of me. He did not move. He's dead. He was so close, he was just two feet in front of me when he dropped."

Mr Farrell's abduction was not reported, as kidnappings involving journalists are often the subject of a voluntary news blackout.

A former reporter with The Times in London, Mr Farrell joined the New York Times in 2007 as a correspondent in the newspaper's Baghdad bureau.

Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times wrote in the paper: "We feared that media attention would raise the temperature and increase the risk to the captives.

"We're overjoyed that Steve is free, but deeply saddened that his freedom came at such a cost.

"We are doing all we can to learn the details of what happened. Our hearts go out to Sultan's family."

Freelance journalist Stephen Grey, author of Operation Snakebite, on the war in Afghanistan, said Mr Farrell was known for his dedication and fearlessness as a reporter.

He said: "He was kidnapped near Fallujah but that did not put him off in the slightest.

"He continued to report from the frontline in Iraq.

"He is the sort of person who realises that you have to get out of your comfort zone beyond the wire in order to work out the truth."

An MoD spokesman said: "We regret to announce that a British soldier has been killed on operations in Afghanistan. The next of kin have been informed."

The soldier was a paratrooper with 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment (1 Para) and was serving with the British special forces support group, military sources said.

The number of British troops killed in Afghanistan since the start of operations in 2001 is now 213, including 41 in July and August this year alone.

The Prime Minister, who was woken by the news of the rescue early yesterday, praised the work of the Armed Forces following Mr Farrell's release and expressed his "deep sadness" at the soldier's death.

"They are truly the finest among us and all of us in Britain pay tribute to them, and to the families and communities who sustain them in their awesome responsibilities," he said.

The MoD could not confirm reports that a number of civilians, including women and children, had been killed during the raid.

A spokesman said: "All claims of civilian casualties are thoroughly investigated.

"Any civilian casualties that do occur as a result of our operations are very much regretted."

Mr Fergus said while the loss of the paratrooper in the raid to free Mr Farrell was regrettable, it was essential to keep the "military option" on the table in kidnap cases in Afghanistan or Iraq.

"In many places if the person is still alive after the first 24 hours there is a good chance they will survive the kidnapping, but that is not true in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.

"You often have no way of knowing whether the motivation for kidnap is shifting towards a propaganda execution, so you have to have the tactical option available from the start."