Britain defends raid that freed reporter from Taliban captors

By Henry Chu
Los Angeles Times / September 11, 2009

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LONDON - The British government yesterday defended its decision to mount a rescue raid in Afghanistan that freed a kidnapped New York Times reporter but left dead his Afghan assistant, a British commando, and possibly Afghan civilians.

The operation in northern Afghanistan, carried out early Wednesday, was authorized by the British defense and foreign secretaries, who had kept close tabs on the effort to locate journalist Stephen Farrell and his interpreter, Sultan Munadi. Farrell, a dual British-Irish citizen, and Munadi were kidnapped last week by the Taliban during a reporting trip to Kunduz province.

British officials said the decision to send in commandos was taken only “after extensive consideration and planning.’’

“Given the considerable risk to Stephen’s and Sultan’s lives, the operation represented our best chance of protecting their lives,’’ said a spokesman for the British Foreign Office, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Some observers are questioning whether the two men’s freedom might not have been won in a less costly fashion through ongoing negotiations, including the possible payment of a ransom.

Others accuse Farrell of acting recklessly and endangering not just himself but his colleague by going into an area known to be perilous. The two men were abducted Saturday while reporting a story on a NATO airstrike in Kunduz last week that blew up two fuel tankers and killed scores of people, many of them apparently civilians.

Before dawn Wednesday, British commandos and Afghan troops raided the house where Farrell and Munadi were being held. Farrell has described the pandemonium that ensued as making it virtually impossible to distinguish friend from foe.

After he and Munadi crept outside, Farrell said, Munadi took the lead, holding up his arms and shouting, “Journalist! Journalist!’’ before crumpling to the ground in a hail of gunfire. Farrell managed to escape harm and turned himself over to British troops.

The raid was reportedly judged necessary because of fears that the Taliban might move their hostages over the border to Pakistan.

But The Times of London yesterday quoted unnamed sources in Kabul as saying that there was no immediate urgency that the men would be harmed or moved, and that the kidnappers mostly wanted ransom.

After the raid, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Britain does not make substantive concessions, including paying ransoms, to kidnappers.

The raid and the death of a British commando will probably add to the Afghan war’s deepening unpopularity in Britain, which has committed the most troops, about 9,000, to the effort after the United States. A poll yesterday showed that slightly more than half of Britons do not think British troops should have been sent to Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, local journalists mourned the loss of one of their own, paying their respects to Munadi’s grief-stricken family and laying flowers on his grave in Kabul.

A group called the Media Club of Afghanistan condemned the Taliban for kidnapping journalists but also directed anger at Western forces, which it accused of a maintaining a double standard in their treatment of foreign and Afghan nationals.

The organization “holds the international forces responsible for the death of Mr. Munadi because they resorted [to] military action before exhausting other nonviolent means,’’ a statement from the group said. “There is no justification for the international forces to rescue their own national, and retrieve the dead body of their own soldier killed in action, but leave behind the dead body of Sultan Munadi in the area.’’