How the official story of Linda Norgrove's death unravelled

Kim Sengupta on the footage that gave the lie to initial accounts of how the activist died.

The kidnapping of Linda Norgrove was seen as yet another deeply worrying example of the unravelling security in many parts of Afghanistan and the rising vulnerability faced by foreigners travelling in the country.

It was not the first such abduction, and there seemed to be nothing to suggest that the 36-year-old aid worker's life was in imminent danger. She had been seized in a particularly lawless region but other abductions there had been resolved following negotiations, sometimes with the payment of ransoms. And there was little publicity about the case – details were not made public while attempts were being made to free her.

International aid workers in Afghanistan had been increasingly concerned about their safety and the murders of a group of doctors in the north of the country, including the British doctor Karen Woo two months ago, have added to the sense of foreboding. However, the fact that Ms Norgrove had not been immediately executed was seen as a source of hope that she would, at some stage, be freed. Well versed in Afghan culture, and a fluent speaker of Dari who was also learning Pashto, she was regarded by colleagues as more capable of surviving than most.

That is how matters remained until the news, at the weekend, that Ms Norgrove was killed during an attempt to rescue her by American special forces, supposedly blown up by one of her captors wearing a suicide vest.

US and British authorities stated that they had no choice but to mount the military operation as the hostage was about to be taken across the border to be delivered to al-Qa'ida in Pakistan. But that account disintegrated yesterday with David Cameron having to announce that Ms Norgrove may have been killed by US troops throwing a grenade.Ms Norgrove, who worked for an American development agency, was travelling with Afghan companions in Kunar to visit an irrigation project on 26 September when they were stopped by armed men in the uniform of the Afghan army and taken away. Her bodyguards chased after the men and there was a brief fire fight, but they failed to secure her release.

US forces in Kunar carried out a series of operations to find her and to block off possible escape routes for the kidnap gang. There were leaflet drops from the air and offers of rewards to villagers in return for information about her whereabouts.

There are directly contradictory accounts of what, in the meantime, was going on behind the scenes. The Foreign Secretary William Hague said yesterday that "from the start" the British government was gravely concerned that Ms Norgrove had been taken by a vicious Salafist group who would pass her on up the terrorist chain of command. But Afghan officials claimed that they were in the process of obtaining her release through a group of local elders when the raid took place. Others maintained that the abductors were not hardcore Taliban but a criminal gang which was seeking a substantial ransom and had let this be known to British diplomats.

Ms Norgrove was being moved about, with the US forces attempting to keep track of her through electronic surveillance as well as material they were receiving from the Afghan intelligence service. General David Petraeus, the American commander of Nato forces, advised the British government that an operation needed to be launched to free the hostage. Cobra, the Cabinet's crisis management committee, gave the go-ahead. Within hours of the failed mission, officials were saying that Ms Norgrove had died in a suicide blast. But then the commander of the Special Operations troop who had carried out the raid saw something in the video footage taken by helmet cameras of soldiers which made him immediately alert Gen Petraeus.

Captain Gary Kirchner, at Nato headquarters, said: "He discovered what looked to him like someone throwing a hand grenade into the area where Ms Norgrove was being held. The bottom line is that when the commander saw that he knew that there were some discrepancies and immediately wanted to make sure that we did the right thing."

Currently the plan is for the US military's Central Command in Tampa, Florida, to hold the investigation.

Ms Norgrove's family want a full explanation of what went wrong and may well want an independent element to the investigation. David Cameron too, publicly placed in a highly embarrassing position through false information, will want to be reassured that the next version he is given is an accurate one.

The other rescues that went wrong

* A dawn raid by British special forces to rescue The New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell, 46, and his Afghan colleague Sultan Munadi, 34, ended with the death of Mr Munadi and Cpl John Harrison, 29. Mr Farrell and Mr Munadi were kidnapped by the Taliban in September last year after travelling to Kunduz to investigate the site of an air strike on two hijacked fuel tankers.

* A chaotic police rescue, which ended in the deaths of eight people taken hostage on a bus in the Philippines, was watched live by millions on television in August. Seven more people were injured. The former police inspector Rolando Mendoza, 55, who was dismissed on robbery and extortion charges, had seized the bus in Manila.

* Florent Lemacon was killed in a shoot-out between French special forces and Somali pirates in April last year after a controversial attempt to recover his hijacked yacht in the Indian Ocean.

* A Russian operation to rescue 800 people taken hostage in a Moscow theatre by Chechen rebels in October 2002 led to the death of 117 as well as around 50 rebels. Most of those killed were said to have been poisoned by gas pumped into the building by Russian troops.

* Attempts by UK and US special forces to rescue IT consultant Peter Moore and his four security guards failed to reach them in time. The five men were kidnapped in Baghdad in May 2007. Mr Moore, 36, was eventually released but three of the guards – Jason Swindlehurst, 38, Jason Creswell, 39, and Alec MacLachlan, 30 – were shot dead. It is believed the fourth, Alan McMenemy, 34, met the same fate.

Timeline of events

Linda Norgrove abducted after an ambush in Kunar province two weeks ago.

She is taken towards the Pakistani border, her movement and those of her abductors tracked electronically.

Cobra, the government's crisis management committee, meets in London. From Kabul, General David Petraeus, the US commander of Nato forces, advises that a rescue attempt must be carried out because of the danger of Ms Norgrove being spirited across the border into Pakistan.

A team of US special forces, on foot and helicopters, storm a compound surrounded by high walls, 7,000 feet up a hillside in the village of Dineshgal in Kunar. There is a prolonged firefight during which grenades are thrown by US forces. Seven insurgents are killed, Ms Norgrove is injured. She is given emergency medical treatment and evacuated by a helicopter, but dies from her injuries.

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