A flawless operation by Nato special forces led by the SAS freed a British aid worker and her three colleagues from the clutches of Taliban kidnappers in a remote part of northern Afghanistan yesterday. They had been held for 11 days in a cave by a group who were armed with heavy machine guns, assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. The five insurgents were killed, but no hostage or Nato soldier was harmed.
The Briton, 28-year-old Helen Johnston, a London-trained nutritionist, is said to be well and in the care of the British embassy in Kabul. Her family were understandably thrilled.
A statement from Ms Johnston's parents Philip and Patricia, and brother Peter said they were "deeply grateful" to her rescuers.
"We are delighted and hugely relieved by the wonderful news that Helen and all her colleagues have been freed... We greatly appreciate the restraint shown by the media since her abduction."
David Cameron said: "It was an extraordinarily brave, breathtaking operation that our troops had to carry out. We will never be able to publish their names but the whole country should know we have an extraordinary group of people who work for us who do amazingly brave things."
The Prime Minister said the outcome should serve as a warning to terrorists everywhere: "They should know if they take British citizens as hostage we do not pay ransoms, we do not trade prisoners. They can expect a swift and brutal end."
Since the kidnapping, the Cabinet's Cobra emergency committee has met each day to discuss the issue. Three of these meetings have been chaired by Mr Cameron. He gave the go-ahead for the rescue operation on Friday afternoon when, he said, information was received that the risks to the hostages' lives were increasing.
The aid team – from a Swiss-based Christian charity called Medair – were seized on 22 May as they travelled to a clinic in the remote Yawan district of Badakhshan by donkey, the road having been destroyed by floods.
One of the team, an Afghan, escaped, but the other four – two Afghans, Ms Johnston, and Moragwa Oirere from Kenya – were taken. How they were treated is not known, but a ransom demand was made for £7.1m.
Shams ul-Rahman, the deputy governor of Badakhshan province, said the hostages were kept near Gulati, a village in Shahri Buzurg district, a mountainous and forested area near the Tajikistan border. "Smugglers are based in those areas, but of course the smugglers have the support of the Taliban," he said.
Afghan elders in the area had worked to seek the release of the aid workers, he added. It was when these elders were about to go to the village to start negotiations that the intelligence took a disturbing turn. News came through that suggested the hostages were about to be moved across the border to Tajikistan. This raised fears that the abductors were trying to sell them on to central Asian militants, possibly the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
Mr Cameron gave the order to begin the rescue amid fears that the hostages were in imminent danger. The special forces included members of 22 SAS, stationed in Kabul, plus colleagues from the New Zealand SAS, US Rangers and Seals, and Afghan special forces, the Tiger Teams.
It is believed that the troops were helicoptered into the region and then faced a long march before reaching the cave in the middle of the night. Having confirmed that the hostages were there, they began their attack at 1am. It met with spectacular success.
Lt Gen Adrian Bradshaw, deputy commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), told the BBC: "This was incredibly difficult terrain, very rocky, with scrub, in a deep gully – it was about the most testing target you could imagine. There's real risk involved in this sort of operation, and we wouldn't have done it were there not a very clear threat to the lives of the hostages."
He said the two Afghan hostages were "incredibly brave and loyal and stayed with the two girls despite having opportunities to escape."
Medair said it was "immensely grateful to all parties involved in ensuring the hostages' swift and safe return". According to its website, the organisation has worked in Afghanistan since 1996, providing relief to vulnerable communities.
The help of the village elders, and the information they passed on, is a tribute to Medair's relationship with locals. One of the uplifting aspects of the rescue was the part played by Afghan officials and forces in the operation. General John R Allen, commander of the ISAF, said: "I would like to thank the Afghan Ministry of the Interior and Minister Mohammadi for their tremendous support throughout this crisis."
Past rescue attempts in Afghanistan have not always gone so well. In 2009, an Afghan translator kidnapped with a New York Times reporter was killed in a hail of bullets during a rescue attempt by British commandos. In 2010, the US Navy's Seal Team 6 tried to rescue Linda Norgrove, a Scottish aid worker, from her Taliban captors. She was killed by a grenade thrown in haste by a US commando.
The kidnapping of foreigners has become relatively common in parts of Afghanistan since US-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban government in 2001. In 2010, 10 foreign medical workers, including the British doctor Karen Woo and six Americans, were killed in Badakhshan in an attack blamed on insurgents.
The day before the latest kidnap, the Foreign Office had issued a warning to NGOs underlining the perils they face. It read: "There have been a number of attacks against aid workers and military vehicles... There are ongoing military operations throughout the Northern Region. We continue to advise against all travel to Badakhshan."
Elsewhere in Afghanistan, Nato and Afghan forces detained a militant commander who allegedly planned and co-ordinated an attack on a coalition base in eastern Khost province on Friday. Troops also detained several other insurgents and seized an AK-47 and ammunition.
Militants detonated a truck bomb outside Forward Operating Base Salerno on Friday, then tried to storm the site. Coalition forces repelled the attack, killing 14 militants. No foreign or Afghan troops died during the raid, according to Nato. The Taliban claimed responsibility, but the militant detained was a member of the Haqqani network, the coalition said. The Haqqani network, which is based in Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, is allied with the Taliban and al-Qa'ida but operates independently.
Additional reporting by Jonathan Owen, Genevieve Roberts, Azar Zaidi