As Taliban Threat to Hostages Grew, British Moved In : NYT

Published: September 9, 2009
WASHINGTON — Britain ordered a predawn commando raid in northern Afghanistan on Wednesday to rescue a British reporter for The New York Times and his Afghan interpreter after Afghan agents learned that the Taliban was planning to move the hostages into Pakistan, a senior Afghan official said Wednesday.

The raid by British Special Forces and Afghan soldiers freed the reporter, Stephen Farrell, but the interpreter, Sultan Munadi, and a British paratrooper were killed in a fierce firefight, as were least one Afghan civilian and dozens of Taliban fighters, officials said.

A senior Afghan official and Mr. Farrell described a situation where after two days in captivity, the hostages’ situation turned more menacing. They said it seemed likely that Taliban leaders from outside the immediate district in Kunduz Province were planning to move the captives across the border into neighboring Pakistan, largely outside the reach of NATO forces.

While Mr. Farrell said he was treated well — given food, water and blankets and never harmed — the militants increasingly taunted Mr. Munadi. At one point one of the Taliban reminded Mr. Munadi of a case two years ago in which an Italian journalist taken hostage in Helmand Province was freed while his Afghan translator was beheaded.

“I did not think they were going to kill me,” Mr. Farrell said Wednesday in a telephone interview from the British Embassy in Kabul. “I did think they were going to kill him.”

The Taliban captors talked freely on their telephones, increasing the chances that NATO eavesdroppers also picked up on the change in mood and believed time was running short to act. “My sense is they probably just got them in the right place and needed to get on to it,” said Peter Gilchrist, a retired British major general and a former senior commander in Afghanistan.

A senior American military official in Washington said that the United States provided intelligence assistance and helicopters for the mission, and had attack aircraft at the ready if needed, but that the operation was planned and carried out by British commanders and civilian officials.

A senior NATO spokesman in Afghanistan, Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, said that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in the country, was informed of the raid after it took place.

The Times of London reported on its Web site on Wednesday that Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain personally approved the raid. But other British officials said Mr. Brown gave only general authorization to the military to rescue Mr. Farrell, who has dual British and Irish citizenship, and Mr. Munadi.

In a statement, Mr. Brown said the raid was a British operation supported by the Afghan authorities and NATO allies, including the United States. He praised the heroism of the British commandos and confirmed “with very deep sadness” the death of one of them.

“This operation was carried out after extensive planning and consideration,” Mr. Brown said, adding that whenever “British nationals are kidnapped, we and our allies will do everything in our power to free them.

“Sadly, we were unable to rescue Stephen’s Afghan interpreter, Sultan Munadi, and we send his family our condolences,” he said.

President Hamid Karzai “strongly condemned the killing of an experienced Afghan journalist,” his office said in a statement on Wednesday, according to Agence France-Presse. The statement said Mr. Munadi “was killed mercilessly by the enemies of Afghanistan” — shorthand for Taliban insurgents — but did not give further details.

Neither The Times nor Mr. Farrell’s family knew that the military operation was taking place. But they had discussed with the military under what conditions they might attempt a rescue. Basically the answer was they might act if they had intelligence that they could act on quickly and with a high probability of success.

Gunmen seized Mr. Farrell and Mr. Munadi on Saturday while they were working in a village near Kunduz. They were reporting on the aftermath of NATO airstrikes on Friday that blew up two fuel tankers hijacked by Taliban militants and killed scores of people, including an uncertain number of civilians.

Mr. Farrell, speaking to colleagues at The Times, said that he and Mr. Munadi were moved several times a day amid the cornfields, rice plantations and mud-brick villages in the Char Dara district over their four days of captivity. In the first two days, he said, they felt optimistic that they would be released.

“They drove us around Char Dara, almost always in the same old Toyota Corolla, sometimes with masked and turbaned motorcycle outriders, rocket-propelled grenades sticking out of backpacks in full daylight, just a few miles from the main Kabul to Kunduz road,” Mr. Farrell said.

He said his captors delighted in showing off, at one point driving to within about 1,500 feet of Afghan government and NATO watch towers, gleeful at their daring.

The area of Kunduz Province where they were held is ethnically mixed, with Tajiks and Pashtuns living in separate villages. But there was no doubt who was in charge. “At no point did we see a single NATO soldier, Afghan policeman, soldier or any check to the Taliban’s ability to move at will,” Mr. Farrell said.

Six to eight guards took turns watching the hostages, and they were hugely unpredictable. “One became enraged when I urinated standing up, deeming it an offense to local families,” Mr. Farrell said. “He then calmed down and asked me to teach him how to count to 10 in English.”

But on the third day, the situation became more threatening. It became harder for the captors to find safe houses. They would get lost driving down ever-narrower and ever more obscure country lanes.

“When they finally found a house with electricity two youngsters produced a tape recorder and began blaring hours of religious sermons, praising Osama bin Laden, the mujahedeen of Chechnya, Somalia, Helmand, Kandahar and anyone fighting the Americans,” Mr. Farrell said.

Some new Taliban figures, evidently more senior, arrived on the scene. There was much discussion of moving the captives outside the Kunduz area, including to Baghlan, a medium-size city not far from the sanctuaries of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Waziristan in Pakistan.

Mr. Munadi became worried about his own fate, and told Mr. Farrell, “I think you’re going to be O.K., but they’ve got it in for me.”

Late on the third night, loud explosions nearby and the drone of aircraft overhead sent the captors and their hostages into the darkness, racing across open fields. It was a false alarm, but with a waning moon Mr. Farrell warned Mr. Munadi that a rescue attempt could be coming soon. Indeed, it would.

At about 2:30 a.m. local time Wednesday, the allied helicopters descended on the hideout and disgorged the British commandos. British and NATO officials have refused to discuss details of the operations, but most of the nations with sizable forces in Afghanistan keep a special military hostage-rescue team at the ready for occasions just like this.

With surveillance drones and helicopters overhead, the captors scattered, Mr. Farrell said. The two men initially stayed put, fearing that they would be caught in any cross-fire. Then one of the captors came back and tipped his gun toward them, he said, but left without firing. “We absolutely expected them to cut us down as they ran,” Mr. Farrell said. “We were crouching targets in a long, narrow room devoid of anything but walls and matting, which felt like a death trap.”

The two men waited a bit, then made their way out of the room into a courtyard. The lost each other in the darkness for a moment, before linking back up. With Mr. Munadi leading, they scuttled along a narrow ledge on the outer wall of the compound. “We could see nothing more than a few feet in front of us,” Mr. Farrell said. “We had no idea who was where, and there were bullets flying through the air.”

After crouching and running for some 60 feet, the two men got to a corner. Mr. Munadi was about two feet ahead of Mr. Farrell, and walked out into the clearing saying in an accent, “Journaliste, journaliste.” It was not clear whether he was assuring commandos that he was not a Talib, or assuring the Taliban that he was not with the commandos. There was a hail of bullets — unclear whether from friend or foe — and Mr. Munadi fell.

Mr. Farrell said he reared back from the gunfire and dived into a ditch. He waited a couple of minutes until he was clear which direction the British voices were coming from, then shouted, “British hostage! British hostage!” A few seconds later with hands raised high, he walked to the British troops and safety.

On Wednesday, Mr. Farrell blamed himself for Mr. Munadi’s death, though he said the two of them discussed while in captivity the possibility that they might not survive.

Mr. Farrell said of his colleague, “He was trying to protect me up to the last minute.” As they left the room under commando siege, “he moved out in front of me.”

“He was three seconds away from safety,” Mr. Farrell said. “I thought we were safe. He just walked into a hail of bullets.”

Carlotta Gall and Richard A. Oppel Jr. contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and John F. Burns from London.

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