/ 9 September 2009

Commandos free kidnapped journalist in Afghanistan

Nato commandos on Wednesday rescued a New York Times reporter held by the Taliban in Afghanistan during a dramatic airborne swoop in which his colleague and a British soldier were killed, officials said.

Gunmen snatched Stephen Farrell, who has dual British-Irish nationality, and Sultan Munadi four days earlier while they were reporting on a controversial Nato air strike that targeted fuel tankers and left scores of people dead.

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.

London’s Ministry of Defence said a British soldier was killed in Wednesday’s operation but refused to confirm media reports that British special forces were involved.

The Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), which deploys 64 500 troops from more than 40 nations against the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan, confirmed the operation.

”Early this morning [Wednesday], joint forces from Isaf and Afghanistan entered a series of compounds in Kunduz and rescued New York Times journalist Stephen Farrell,” an Isaf spokesperson said.

Farrell, who is married, was unhurt. But his interpreter, a 34-year-old father of two who was working in Afghanistan on a break from university studies in Germany, was killed in a hail of gunfire, the newspaper reported.

In a brief telephone call, Farrell (46) told the New York Times foreign editor: ”I’m out! I’m free!” the newspaper reported.

Prior to the release, the kidnapping was kept quiet by the newspaper and most major news organisations out of concern for the men’s safety.

In a second phone call to a New York Times reporter in Kabul, Farrell said he and his captors heard helicopters approach before the dramatic rescue.

”We were all in a room, the Talibs all ran, it was obviously a raid,” Farrell said. ”We thought they would kill us. We thought, should we go out?”

Farrell said that as he and Munadi ran outside, he heard voices. ”There were bullets all around us. I could hear British and Afghan voices.”

The Afghan governor in Kunduz, Mohammad Omar, initially said that it was a US military operation and that Munadi was killed by the Taliban during the raid, but Farrell told the paper he did not know who fired the fatal bullets.

Munadi advanced shouting ”Journalist! Journalist!” but dropped dead in a hail of bullets just in front of his colleague.

After a minute or two, Farrell said he heard more British voices and shouted: ”British hostage!” The British voices told him to come over.

Writing last week in the newspaper’s At War blog, for which Farrell was chief blogger, Munadi wrote of his love for Afghanistan and why he would never leave the war-torn country permanently.

”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? Will it be the Taliban who come to govern this country?

”Being a journalist is not enough; it will not solve the problems of Afghanistan. I want to work for the education of the country, because the majority of people are illiterate,” he wrote.

Eleven weeks ago, New York Times journalist David Rohde and a local reporter escaped following seven months in captivity after being abducted outside Kabul with their driver, according to the newspaper.

”We’re overjoyed that Steve is free, but deeply saddened that his freedom came at such a cost,” said Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times.

”We are doing all we can to learn the details of what happened. Our hearts go out to Sultan’s family,” he added.

Farrell is an experienced and well-respected reporter who has worked for the New York Times since July 2007, largely in Iraq, and was formerly Middle East correspondent for Britain’s Times newspaper.

He was also kidnapped and held captive for about eight hours at gunpoint near Baghdad in April 2004.

In August, three journalists working for US-based media were wounded in bomb blasts in Afghanistan, where a Taliban insurgency is now at its most virulent in the eight years since the 2001 US-led invasion ousted the regime. — AFP