Commando killed freeing UK journalist

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A British soldier was killed during an operation to free a journalist who had been kidnapped in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence today said.

Stephen Farrell, a reporter with the New York Times who holds dual British and Irish citizenship, was successfully released during the raid that was believed to have been carried out by special forces.

The soldier's next of kin have been informed, the MoD said.

Mr Farrell's Afghan interpreter Sultan Munadi died during the raid.

Describing the moment his rescuers arrived, the 46-year-old said: "We were all in a room, the Talibs all ran, it was obviously a raid.

He told the New York Times: "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."

The pair were snatched on Saturday as Mr Farrell was reporting on the aftermath of a Nato airstrike in the northern province of Kunduz.

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

Afghan officials said about 70 people died when US jets dropped two bombs on the tankers, igniting them in a massive explosion.

The MoD has refused to confirm reports that British special forces were involved in the raid.

A spokeswoman said: "We do not comment on special forces. All we can say is that it was a Nato operation."

The Foreign Office said: "Efforts have been under way to secure the release of two hostages in Afghanistan.

"We can confirm that Isaf forces have freed one of the hostages."

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

It is the second time he has been kidnapped. In April 2004, while on assignment for The Times, he was kidnapped at gunpoint near Fallujah in Iraq.

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 is 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."

Britain's ambassador to Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "What I can confirm is that international and Afghan forces were involved in this rescue.

"I want to pay tribute to their courage and professionalism, and as you know it was successful."

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 is believed to have been a paratrooper.

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's spokesman said Gordon Brown had been woken by the news of the rescue early today.

The spokesman added: "In the last hour he has spoken to General Jim Dutton who is D-Con ISAF - effectively (US military commander) General (Stanley) McChrystal's number two - to thank the team for the tremendous effort."

The Prime Minister's spokesman refused to comments on suggestions that the soldier killed may have been a member of the special forces.

And he said: "The conversation with General Dutton was pretty brief, he just wanted to say well done to the team that went in."

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

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.