Commandos free NY Times reporter in Afghan raid

BRITISH commandos freed a New York Times reporter in an early raid yesterday on a Taliban hide-out in northern Afghanistan. The journalist’s Afghan translator and one of the troops were killed in the rescue, officials said.

Reporter Stephen Farrell, who holds Irish and British citizenship, was taken hostage last Saturday along with his translator in the northern province of Kunduz when they went to cover a German-ordered airstrike of two hijacked fuel tankers. The bombing, carried out by US jets, caused a number of civilian casualties. One British service member died during the raid, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, while the Times reported that Farrell’s Afghan translator, Sultan Munadi, 34, also was killed. Brown said “we send his family our condolences”. Farrell was unhurt.

Gunfire rang out from multiple sides during the rescue, and a Taliban commander who was in the house was killed, along with the owner of the house and a woman, said Mohammad Sami Yowar, a spokesman for the Kunduz governor.

Munadi was killed in the midst of the firefight, he said. A British defence official said he couldn’t rule out the possibility he was killed by British gunfire.

Afghan officials over the weekend said about 70 people died when US jets dropped two bombs on the tankers, igniting them in a massive explosion. There were reports villagers who had come to collect fuel from the tankers were among the dead, and Farrell wanted to interview villagers. The Times reported that while Farrell and Munadi were talking to Afghans near the site of the bombing, an old man approached them and warned them to leave. Soon after, gunshots rang out and people shouted that the Taliban were approaching.

Police had warned reporters who travelled to the capital of Kunduz to cover the tanker strike that the village in question was controlled by the Taliban, and it would be dangerous to go there. The Times kept the kidnappings quiet out of concern for the men’s safety, and other media outlets did not report the abductions following a request from the Times.

A story posted on the Times’s website quoted Farrell as saying he had been “extracted” by a commando raid carried out by “a lot of soldiers” in a firefight.

British special forces dropped from helicopters early yesterday onto the house where the two were being kept, and a gunbattle broke out, Yowar said.

Farrell, 46, told the Times that he saw Munadi step forward shouting “Journalist! Journalist!!” but he then fell in a volley of bullets. Farrell said he did not know if the shots came from militants or the rescuing forces.

“I dived in a ditch,” said Farrell. Moments later, he said he heard British voices and shouted: “British hostage!!” The British voices told him to come over. As he did, Farrell said he saw Munadi. “He was lying in the same position as he fell,” Farrell told the Times.

“That’s all I know. I saw him go down in front of me. He did not move. He’s dead. He was so close, he was just two feet in front of me when he dropped.”

A British defence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was not able to rule out the possibility that Munadi was killed by soldiers carrying out the rescue mission amid a fierce firefight with the journalists’ captors. “All reports of civilian fatalities are always investigated thoroughly,” Britain’s defence ministry said.

New York Timesexecutive editor Bill Keller said he had understood from the military that they did not intend to conduct a raid unless the situation turned “particularly menacing, and they had actionable intelligence and a high probability of success”.

Keller said he doesn’t know what triggered the decision to carry out the raid, but that Farrell told him the situation had turned “menacing”. Keller also said it was possible the militants may have planned to move the hostages and said he would not second guess the military’s decision to take action.

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