Ransom 'paid before abortive rescue mission'

Negotiations were said to be taking place before the British and Italian hostages were shot dead in Nigeria

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The Independent Online

Allegations that a ransom was paid for two hostages before they were killed in Nigeria during an abortive rescue mission led by British special forces fuelled anger and suspicion yesterday. As the body of the Italian Franco Lamolinara returned to Rome, Italian media last night reported claims that payment of a ransom for the release of the two men may already have been made when the attack was launched. Detailed negotiations were said to have taken place. It was confirmed at least that the kidnappers had made direct contact with the family of Chris McManus, the British hostage who was also killed in the attack.

Those holding McManus, believed to be from the Islamist group Boko Haram, telephoned his relatives at their home in Oldham, Greater Manchester, during his nine-month ordeal. However, the kidnappers failed to make "coherent demands" during the calls, according to one UK source last night.

Senior British officials responded swiftly to the claims, stating: "There were no coherent demands, no requests for money, no money paid and no suggestion that these hostages would be released unharmed."

The Government moved quickly to allay concerns about the operation. William Hague will explain to MPs in Parliament how a special forces raid on a compound in Nigeria left two hostages dead. The Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office have also launched an internal inquiry into the operation, carried out by the elite Special Boat Service and Nigerian forces.

Demands for an official explanation of the circumstances surrounding the abortive rescue mission increased yesterday as conflicting and damaging claims emerged. Questions mounted in Italy over the raid on the house where the two construction engineers were being held – and David Cameron's decision to launch the operation in the first place.

The denial conflicts with a report in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, which said a press agency from the West African state of Mauritania had claimed that part of the ransom had been paid and "negotiations were initiated to achieve the liberation of the two hostages".

The Rome-based newspaper Il Messaggero said the Nouakchott Information Agency reported that the kidnappers had told the family they wanted €5m (£4.2m) and the release of some prisoners. The paper said the agency quoted an al-Qa'ida source as saying that "the British were more intransigent than the Italians and... the kidnappers were willing to talk and several times renewed the deadline".

Mr Hague, if he is allowed to face MPs before joining the Prime Minister on his trip to Washington this week, will face inquiries about the planning and execution of the operation – and whether enough was done to avoid its deadly conclusion. The Foreign Secretary moved quickly to placate his Italian counterpart, Giulio Terzi di Sant'Agata, at an informal foreign ministers' meeting in Copenhagen on Friday, less than 24 hours after Italy's President, Giorgio Napolitano, said it was "inexplicable" that the UK did not inform his government before launching the rescue attempt.

A statement from the two ministers acknowledged that there had been "a limited opportunity" to secure the release of hostages whose lives were "in imminent and growing danger". While Mr Terzi had asked Britain for "utmost clarity" about the operation, the statement said it had been possible to inform Italy only once the operation was already getting under way.

British officials maintained that they had been presented with a brief "window of opportunity" in which to act. The Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, said: "All the intelligence was that the [hostages] were about to be moved and possibly executed."

Nigerian sources yesterday said eight suspects had been flown to the nation's capital, Abuja, and had confessed to killing Mr McManus, 28, and Mr Lamolinara, 48, who had been working for an Italian construction firm. It was claimed that the kidnappers took the two men to a tiny bathroom and murdered them as the British and Nigerian forces stormed their compound. An early medical examination in Italy last night found that Mr Lamolinara had been shot four times, including a head shot.

Nigerian security sources said yesterday that one of those arrested had confessed to the killings. "In the course of interrogation, one of them said they killed the two guys on sighting the security men because they [the kidnappers] were not sure they, too, would survive the attack."

The house where the men were being held had been under surveillance for some time. It was reported that that a senior member of Boko Haram, captured on Tuesday, gave information which led forces to the house, but the group denied it had been behind the deaths.

The Nigerian newspaper Daily Champion said security men cordoned off the Mabera area near the eastern bypass in Sokoto at about 11am on the day of the assault. The shooting began soon afterwards and lasted for up to five hours. Witnesses said gunmen fired back from inside the house, leading to a gun battle that lasted through the day. As the fight went on, an armoured personnel carrier was deployed to join the assault. However, the reports from Italy suggested that the bloody end to the kidnapping could have been avoided if the alleged negotiations had been allowed to take their course.

Il Messaggero said two mediators were appointed after the kidnappers first made contact. A source quoted in the paper said that the families asked for proof that the men were still alive. The Italian was asked where he had met his wife and the Briton was asked where he had spent his honeymoon. The correct answers were Rome and Manchester. Once the families were satisfied the men were alive, the negotiations went ahead.

Additional reporting by Michael Pooler