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Questions in Britain over Afghanistan raid to free journalist

The British press questioned on Thursday whether military force should have been used to rescue a journalist held hostage in Afghanistan, after his assistant, two civilians and a soldier were killed.

world Updated: Sep 10, 2009 08:25 IST

The British press questioned on Thursday whether military force should have been used to rescue a journalist held hostage in Afghanistan, after his assistant, two civilians and a soldier were killed.

NATO commandos on Wednesday rescued New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell, who has dual British-Irish nationality and was being held by the Taliban, in an airborne raid and shootout in the country's north.

Farrell and his Afghan colleague were snatched four days earlier while they were reporting on a NATO air strike that targeted fuel tankers and killed scores of people, sparking intense anger in Afghanistan.

Hostage negotiators expressed anger at the raid, saying they were within days of securing the peaceful release of Farrell and his assistant Sultan Munadi from the Taliban, according to newspapers in London.

And the death of a soldier in the raid sparked anger in the British army here, the Daily Telegraph said, after claims Farrell brushed aside security advice by venturing into a Taliban stronghold.

"When you look at the number of warnings this person had it makes you really wonder whether he was worth rescuing, whether it was worth the cost of a soldier's life," a senior army source told the Telegraph.

The Times newspaper, quoting defence sources, said the raid was mounted after British forces feared Farrell could be moved, and there were no guarantees that the negotiations would have led to his and Munadi's release.

However, several sources quoted by the newspaper said that the kidnappers were, at worst, seeking a ransom.

"There was no immediate urgency that they were going to be beheaded or handed over to another group. You cannot move them easily. It's a very isolated area," a Western source involved in the talks told The Times.

Munadi, a father of two, was shot dead and two other Afghans were killed, along with the British soldier in the raid, officials said.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth approved the raid, carried out by British Special Forces, dropped by US helicopters, after consulting with Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the paper said.
Negotiations had been under way beforehand with the Taliban's "shadow governor" of Kunduz province, Mullah Salam, and a deal on Farrell's release "seemed possible," according to the Guardian.

"He (Salam) was out of money and open to doing a deal. The plan was to keep negotiations local and appeal to the decency of Afghans to do the right thing and release a civilian journalist," a Western diplomat was quoted by the newspaper saying.

"But then (Britain's foreign intelligence service) MI6 charged in and, with next to zero knowledge of the local situation, decided to launch an operation."

However British officials said the rescue operation had been ordered after intelligence, including intercepts, suggested that the journalists' lives were in imminent danger, the Guardian reported.

Britain's Ministry of Defence declined comment on the reports.