A British journalist kidnapped by the Taliban was freed yesterday in a dramatic raid by British special forces. But the rescue came at a price, with the reporter's Afghan colleague, a British soldier and a woman civilian killed in the firefight.
Members of the British Special Forces Support Group, with American and Afghan troops, swooped down in helicopters on a village near Kunduz in northern Afghanistan to save Stephen Farrell, of the New York Times, who had been held for four days by insurgents.
More than 40 Taliban fighters are reported to have been killed in the fierce fighting which ensued. Mr Farrell was dragged away by Western troops, but his interpreter, Sultan Munadi, a father of two, was shot dead. The reporter said his Afghan colleague "was trying to protect me until the last minute".
According to defence sources the British paratrooper was killed in the initial stages of the mission while storming a house where the two hostages were being held by fighters of Mullah Salaam, a Taliban commander with a fearsome reputation. It is not known if the Talib chief, for long a Nato target, is among the dead.
Gordon Brown is understood to have given the go-ahead for the rescue mission. "This operation was carried out after extensive planning and consideration," the Prime Minister said. "Those involved knew the high risks they were running. That they undertook it in such circumstances showed breathtaking heroism."
However, in Afghanistan there were questions about whether a military strike was necessary while negotiations appeared to be paving the way for Mr Farrell and Mr Munadi to be released. President Hamid Karzai "strongly condemned the killing of an experienced Afghan journalist". The head of the Afghan Independent Journalists' Association, Rahimullah Samandar, said: "This is not the first time a kidnapped Afghan journalist has been killed while a Western colleague is freed. It makes us think that international forces don't care about Afghan reporters." Fazal Karim, the local MP for the area, said: "This will just inflame opinion. I know talks were being held and I have heard that they were going well."
Mr Farrell, 46, made the six-hour journey north to report on Nato airstrikes last Friday that killed scores of civilians. He was accompanied by a driver and 34-year-old Mr Munadi. An experienced reporter, he had been kidnapped once before, at Fallujah in Iraq in April 2004, when insurgents held him for a day. Mr Munadi, who first worked for the New York Times in 2002 and had built a reputation for professionalism, had been studying for a Masters degree in Germany and had returned to visit his family in Kabul.
It was dark by the time the New York Times team got to Kunduz, the main city in the area, and they decided to spent the night there. The three men set off at around 8.30am for the village of Haji Alam, where two fuel tankers had been hit in last week's air strikes, starting a lethal inferno. On the way Mr Munadi called an acquaintance in the village who warned that local people were in an angry mood.
On arriving at the scene of the attack, around seven miles from Kunduz, with the charred shells of the tankers lying abandoned beside a river, Mr Farrell and Mr Munadi began interviewing local people.
The situation remained calm at first. But soon a crowd began to gather. The driver pointed out anxiously that among them appeared to be Pashtuns from southern Kandahar, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban. An old man approached and urged the journalists to leave for their own safety. From nearby came a burst of Kalashnikov fire. The crowd started shouting "The Taliban are coming!" and began to disperse in panic.
Across the river the driver saw nearly a dozen men with assault rifles and machine guns running towards them. With two teenage boys he ran to take shelter in a field. As he sat gasping for breath, a call came from Mr Munadi saying that he and Mr Farrell had been kidnapped.
New York Times executives were shocked but not entirely surprised by the news. Another of the paper's reporters, David Rohde, had recently spent months in Taliban captivity.
Negotiations began through a number of intermediaries. Meanwhile a shura, or tribal meeting, was held near Kunduz with around 250 elders recommending to the Taliban that the journalists should be freed.
At the same time, however, Nato forces were making their own plans. Knowing that the hostages had been transferred to the custody of the notorious Mullah Salaam added urgency to their moves. An assault plan was presented to General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Isaf (International Security Assistance Force) on Tuesday.
Mr Farrell and Mr Munadi were meanwhile being moved from location to location. The atmosphere was at first relaxed, but that changed as more senior Taliban figures arrived. Mr Munadi was taunted with the fate of a translator for an Italian journalist who had been beheaded.
They were to spend their last night in captivity at the the home of Mohammed Nabi, in Char Dara. He later described how the Taliban group had arrived demanding shelter. Around midnight the sound of helicopter blades could be heard, Mr Farrell recounted. "We were all in a room. The Talibs all ran, it was obviously a raid. We thought they would kill us. We thought should we go out? One of the insurgents came back into the room and pointed his gun at them, but then disappeared again."
The two men decided to make a run for it. "There were bullets all around us. I could hear British and Afghan voices. " At this point Mr Munadi went forward, with his hands in the air, shouting " Journalist! Journalist!" But then he fell, cut down by bullets. Mr Farrell, who had dived into a ditch, does not know whether the shooting came from the militants or coalition forces.
After a minute Mr Farrell heard more British voices and shouted out: "British hostage!" A voice asked him to make his way over. As he did so he saw Mr Munadi. " He was lying in the same position he fell. That's all I know. I saw him go down in front of me. He did not move. He was dead, he was so close, he was just two feet in front of me when he dropped. He was three seconds away from safety," Mr Farrell said. "I thought we were safe. He just walked into a hail of bullets."
A little later Mr Farrell managed to telephone his newspaper to say "I'm out. I'm free". He also spoke to his wife Reem, a fellow New York Times reporter based in the Middle East. Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, said the newspaper was "overjoyed" at Mr Farrell's release, but "deeply saddened it came at such a cost." The paper had no idea, he stressed, that a military raid was being planned.
Mr Nabi, who owns the guest house, gave his version of events. "At midnight, US helicopters came, dropping off soldiers. A clash broke out and the soldiers blew open the door of my house, killing my sister-in-law. They took the reporter, but not the Afghan. We found his body in the morning."
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