Why did you kill my son? Backlash against Afghan operation grows
Friday 11 September 2009
The operation to free the journalist Stephen Farrell was enmeshed in controversy and recrimination last night as Gordon Brown appeared to distance himself from ordering the rescue bid which ended in British and Afghan deaths.
Now the father of Sultan Munadi, the Afghan colleague of Mr Farrell who was killed in the raid, has demanded to know why ongoing negotiations, which he believes could have led to a peaceful outcome, were abandoned in favour of a military strike.
Karban Mohammed told The Independent that his son had called him 90 minutes before he was shot to say he was confident that he and Mr Farrell would soon be freed by the Taliban fighters holding them.
In the 15-minute telephone call Mr Munadi reassured his family that talks were going well and the likely timing of the release would be when the mourning period was over for the 100 or so people killed in last week's Nato air strikes on hijacked tankers.
"Sultan was sure of that. My son's words brought me so much happiness I felt maybe I could sleep for the first time in many nights. He seemed so confident that things were working out," recalled Mr Mohammed.
"We sat around and discussed how we would welcome Sultan back. That was never to be and now we are all very sad. Many terrible things have happened in this country, but when it happens to your own, it is not easy.
"Yes, I feel very angry about what happened. I feel sad and also angry. Sultan was killed for no reason at all."
Mr Munadi, the father of two boys, aged three years and five months, was shot down when British, American and Afghan troops stormed the building at a village near Kunduz, in the north of the country, where he and New York Times journalist Mr Farrell were being held. The British soldier killed in the raid was yesterday named as Corporal John Harrison. It is not known whether the fatal shots came from Taliban fighters or the rescuers.
On Wednesday, Gordon Brown had basked in the limelight, making a public statement soon after the operation. By yesterday, as anger grew, Downing Street was in contortions, first insisting that the Prime Minister was merely "consulted" over the decision to launch the operation.
It stressed the raid was authorised by David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, and Bob Ainsworth, the Defence Secretary, on the advice of forces on the ground. "The final decision whether to go or not would have been made by the two cabinet ministers," Mr Brown's spokesman said.
But Mr Miliband was in Paris for talks on climate change at the time, while Mr Ainsworth is understood to have been away from Whitehall. Both the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence are thought to have protested about No 10's comments.
In the face of accusations that Mr Brown was running away from responsibility for the raid, Downing Street mounted a damage limitation operation last night. Sources in No 10 insisted that the Prime Minister took ultimate responsibility for any government decision.
Far from Westminster, Mr Mohammed, 67, sat at home yesterday morning after burying his son the night before. A steady stream of family and friends came to offer their condolences. It was a mainly silent occasion with murmurs of sympathy, broken only by Mr Munadi's son, Parsa, asking his grandfather for ice cream.
Mr Mohammed, a man of quiet dignity, repeated the question he had been asking himself for the last day. "Why did they do this? Why did the military not wait for the talks? It is not just my son who died, there were others, a young British soldier I am told. His parents must be feeling very sad as well, please send them my sympathy. We are very unhappy about how this was done, they have shown no feeling for us. We would just like an explanation, we deserve an explanation."
That explanation has not been forthcoming from Nato, or the Afghan government, or the UN. It is unclear who took the final decision to press General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Nato forces in the country, to mount the raid. Military sources say a mission became imperative because Mr Farrell, 46, and 34-year-old Mr Munadi had passed into the control of Mullah Salaam, a notorious Taliban leader. The pair could have been spirited away to a remote mountain hideout, or across the border into the terrorist havens of Pakistan, where a rescue operation would have been much more hazardous.
But, among many Afghans, there is a feeling that Afghan lives don't count for as much as Western ones. They point out that while Mr Farrell was whisked to safety, Mr Munadi's body was left abandoned on the ground, to be found by the householder, Mohammed Nabi, who says his sister-in-law was among those killed.
Fazul Rahim, an Afghan producer for the American network CBS News, said the foreign forces' actions showed a lack of respect. "It shows a double standard between a foreign life and an Afghan life," he said. Naqibullah Taib, of the Afghan Independent Journalists' Association, called on foreign news organisations to do more for the safety of local staff.
The importance of in-depth reporting from the country was highlighted by the news yesterday that a UN panel had decided to annul ballots from dozens of polling stations that mostly favoured President Hamid Karzai, heralding a fraud investigation that could drag on for months.
But politics is far from Karban Mohammed's mind. He insists his son believed his life was safe. "They allowed him to speak to us every day. He called us and we called him. I remember the first time I talked to one of the kidnappers and told him that my son was innocent, to let him go.
"I said I was an old man, that his mother was old and she was ill, and this could give her another heart attack. They said my son and the journalist would be all right, they would be freed. I thought maybe that was a trick, but then Sultan said that he was feeling safer because a deal was being organised. I do not think he was just saying that. Why should he build up our hopes like that? No, I believe this could have been settled peacefully."
It is one of the curious features of this case that the kidnappers had allowed Mr Munadi to use his mobile telephone when the location of the calls could so easily have been tracked. According to those involved in the negotiations, the abductors were not so much trained insurgents as criminals. This, say the negotiators, was one reason why they felt the situation could be resolved by paying a ransom. The sum under discussion, according to these people, was not particularly high.
Mr Munadi was on a visit back home to Afghanistan from a post-graduate course in Germany when he went to Kunduz. He had said it was important that people like him came home to rebuild the country.
"He had lots of hope, and now all that is thrown away," said Mr Mohammed. "Maybe when he left that morning, I should have stopped him, told him that he has a young family and he should not take the risk. It is too late now... I looked at my son's face when they brought the body home. He had very bad injuries, but you know I think he was smiling..." His voice faded away.
Sultan's brother, Usman, was also confident that the journalists were going to be freed. "In the morning my uncle said that he had heard the Red Cross had freed him, and we must hurry to go and get him," he said. "We were driving in the car when he got a phone call saying that Sultan has been killed. He stopped the car and started crying. I cried as well: there was nothing else we could do."
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