Controversy deepens over Afghan hostage rescue

Controversy deepens over Afghan hostage rescue

Recrimination over a bloody raid that freed a New York Times reporter from his Taliban captors in Afghanistan deepened Friday with both Britain's government and the newspaper defending their actions, AFP reported.

British-Irish journalist Stephen Farrell escaped unharmed in Wednesday's commando operation, but his Afghan colleague Sultan Munadi was killed along with a British soldier and an Afghan woman and child.

Munadi's father insisted that his son and Farrell were on the brink of a negotiated release. But British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the raid was "the only way" to secure their freedom.

Interviewed by the BBC, Miliband refused to confirm widespread reporting that negotiations were well advanced with the Taliban to free the two reporters.

But he said: "We looked at all the options -- and I stress all the options. We had full information in front of us from when we were first briefed on this at the weekend.

"We came to the conclusion that the only way in which we could secure the successful release of both hostages was through the military action that was taken."

Miliband said the deaths bore "very, very heavily on all of us" and said his "heart goes out" to Munadi's family.

Colleagues of the well-respected Afghan journalist are outraged that his bullet-riddled body was abandoned at the scene in the northern province of Kunduz.

Ahead of a memorial service in a Kabul mosque later Friday, Munadi's father Karban Mohammed said his son had telephoned him 90 minutes before he was shot to say he was confident that he and Farrell would soon be freed.

"Sultan was sure of that. My son's words brought me so much happiness I felt maybe I could sleep for the first time in many nights," Mohammed told Britain's Independent newspaper.

"We sat around and discussed how we would welcome Sultan back. That was never to be and now we are all very sad," he was quoted as saying.

"Yes, I feel very angry about what happened. I feel sad and also angry. Sultan was killed for no reason at all."

Reaction to Farrell's release mirrored anger that many Afghans expressed over the release of a kidnapped Italian journalist in 2007. His interpreter was beheaded and his driver killed.

But New York Times executive editor Bill Keller hit back at "simplistic" criticism that a reckless pursuit of news by Farrell had caused the duo's capture.

Farrell and Munadi were snatched by Taliban militants on Saturday as they were interviewing Kunduz residents about a NATO air strike that Afghan officials say killed dozens of civilians.

"That Sultan and the soldier lost their lives in this episode is heartbreaking, and it's human nature to look for someone to blame, but to blame the journalist is simplistic at best," Keller said in an email to AFP.

"Steve consulted with American and Afghan colleagues and, like other journalists who made the same trip, concluded that it could be done safely," he said.

"It was an important story -- a report of scores of dead innocents at a very sensitive period in the politics of Afghanistan -- that could not be verified by phone calls or the Afghan rumor mill.

"It called out for on-the-scene reporting if possible."

Farrell and Munadi were the second team from The New York Times to be kidnapped in Afghanistan in less than a year. Their abduction highlighted growing insecurity in the once relatively peaceful north of the country.

Farrell, writing about his captivity and the rescue operation in The New York Times blog, said he was "comfortable" with his decision to go to a riverbank where the NATO air strike hit two Taliban-hijacked fuel trucks.

But he said the team may have lingered at the site for too long.

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