Britain was enmeshed in an acrimonious and escalating diplomatic row with Italy last night over the doomed attempt by UK special forces to rescue two hostages held by Islamist militants in Nigeria.
President Giorgio Napolitano criticised the UK's "inexplicable" failure to warn in advance about the mission which ended in the death of Italian national Franco Lamolinara and Briton Chris McManus. Ministers in London strongly refuted the charge, insisting that Rome had been extensively consulted over the matter and made fully aware that emergency military action may have to be taken at short notice.
While recriminations continued at government level, confusing and contradictory accounts began to emerge on the ground about what exactly took place when members of the SBS (Special Boat Service) and Nigerian troops stormed the building in the city of Sokoto where the hostages were being held.
Some Nigerian reports claimed that the two men were being used as shields by their captors and were killed by crossfire during a gun battle. Earlier they had claimed the hostages were already dead when the operation began, or that they were shot dead in another part of the building when the rescue force began their attack.
British diplomatic and military sources maintained, however, that 28-year-old Mr McManus and 48-year-old Mr Lamolinara were found executed, with bullet wounds to the head. What transpired appears to be the antithesis of a shock-entry and swift surgical strike using high performance weapons and a rapid exit normally associated with such a specialist mission.
Instead of taking place at night or at dawn, as is usually the case with such secret operations, it began at around 11am. Residents of Sokoto described more than 100 troops arriving in convoys of trucks as well as a tank and setting up road blocks. The ensuing firefight lasted for hours, during which frustrated Nigerian troops asked for old tyres which they lit and tossed into the targeted building in an effort to smoke out the militants.
The SBS unit which took part in the mission is believed to have been in Nigeria for around 10 days. It is unclear, however, exactly how long they had to plan the raid. The arrest of a senior member of Boka Haram, the Islamist group to which the abductors belonged, on Tuesday is said to have pinpointed the property where the hostages were being kept, offering a limited timeframe before it was decided to take action.
Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera contrasted Italy's habit of negotiating for the return of hostages – highlighting the release of Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan in 2007 in return for the freeing of a journalist – with the British and US policy of refusing talks and following the military option. It pointed out that when British and Italian special forces teamed up to free two Italian secret service agents taken prisoner in Afghanistan in 2007, one died during the operation.
The train of events in Nigeria provoked anger in Rome and the British ambassador was summoned to explain the episode. President Napolitano said: "The behaviour of the British Government in not informing Italy is inexplicable. A political and diplomatic clarification is necessary."
The British Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, stressed the urgency involved, explaining that intelligence had emerged that the hostages would be "moved and possibly executed". Referring to Italian objections, he continued: "It's completely explicable what happened. It's very unfortunate, but it's completely explicable."