Raid to free reporters in Afghanistan second guessed

A negotiated release was possible says Red Cross, but released New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell said the conditions of their captivity were growing "menacing."

By , Staff writer

The British commando raid in Afghanistan Wednesday ended in the death of New York Times translator Sultan Munadi and an as yet unnamed British soldier – and freedom for kidnapped Times reporter Stephen Farrell.

But the raid is attracting criticism. The International Committee of the Red Cross and others are suggesting that winning Mr. Farrell and Mr. Munadi's freedom could have been achieved without the loss of life. And some in Britain are saying that soldiers should not have been put in harm's way to free the journalists.

British-Irish journalist Farrell and Munadi, an Afghan national freelancing for the Times while on vacation from a masters program in Germany, were kidnapped Saturday outside the Northern Afghan city of Kunduz. They were reporting about a German-ordered air strike last week that killed about 70 people, at least some of them civilians. That attack on two hijacked fuel trucks has stirred public anger in Afghanistan and fueled criticism of the ongoing NATO war effort in Europe.

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The two reporters had first visited the city of Kunduz, where they talked to survivors in the local hospital, and then went to the village where the airstrike took place, despite warnings that the area was under Taliban control and likely dangerous, the Washington Post reported.

After a short time on the scene, Taliban gunmen arrived and seized the men. The New York Times did not report on the abduction and most of the world's media followed suit, as they did during the hostage ordeal of David Rohde, who was held by the Taliban in Pakistan for seven months until his freedom in June.

Time Magazine reports that the International Committee of the Red Cross was in negotiations with the hostage takers, led by a low-level Taliban commander known for banditry, as well as with "sympathetic local Afghans and tribal elders with ties to the Taliban." Time said the Red Cross was "optimistic" that the men would soon be released without a ransom payment and that negotiators felt Taliban commanders in Kunduz were "acting reasonably."

Nevertheless, the British troops that swooped down by helicopter early this morning on the home where the two men were being held, may have acted just in time. According to Mr. Farrell's account of what happened, reported in the New York Times, what had been a reasonably congenial captivity in the first few days had started to turn ugly.

In the first two days, he said, they had felt optimistic that they would be released. The men holding them talked freely on their cellphones, Mr. Farrell said, and on the third day, some new Taliban figures, evidently more senior and from outside the immediate district, arrived. Mr. Munadi told Mr. Farrell they discussed moving the captives from the Kunduz area. The atmosphere grew menacing, Mr. Farrell said. The captors taunted Mr. Munadi, reminding him of a case two years ago in which an Italian journalist taken hostage in Helmand Province was freed while his Afghan translator was beheaded.

As it happened, Mr. Munadi died despite their efforts, though it's unclear if he was shot by British forces or the Taliban during the raid. In a deeply personal blog post published by the New York Times on Sept. 2, Munadi wrote of his commitment to his native country:

I was maybe four or five years old when we went from my village into the mountains and the caves to hide, because the Soviets were bombing. I have passed those times, and the time of the Taliban when I could not even go to Kabul, inside my country. It was like being in a prison. Those times are past now. Now I am hopeful of a better situation. And if I leave this country, if other people like me leave this country, who will come to Afghanistan?

The Times of London said the raid came after days of careful planning by British special forces in which Prime Minister Gordon Brown and other political figures were kept appraised of progress daily updates. Mr. Brown approved the raid.

The Prime Minister, who was woken to hear news of the rescue, phoned the British commanders to thank the rescue team for its effort and pay tribute to the member of the Special Forces Support Group killed. Mr Brown said in a statement: “It is with very deep sadness that I must also confirm that, while acting with the greatest of courage in this most dangerous mission, one member of the British armed forces lost his life."

Judging by the tone of the comments left by readers at the bottom of that Times story, in which some readers say rescuing the journalist was not worth the loss of military lives, another debate about the appropriate conduct and role for journalists in warfare may about to get underway.

New York Times executive editor Bill Keller said the military said a raid would not be carried out unless the tone of the captors turned "menacing" something he said happened. He also told the Associated Press that the New York Times will be considering changes to its security strategy. "Keller said that reporters in the field are allowed a great deal of leeway, and that they are the best ones to judge the level of risk but that the Times would carry out a security review after the latest abduction," the AP reported.

Read more about the other repercussions of the airstrike in Kunduz last week.

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