Anger brews over UK journalist’s daring Afghan rescue

The rescue of a British journalist from the Taliban has provoked anger about the risks reporters take in war zones after his Afghan colleague and a British soldier were killed in the operation to free him.

Stephen Farrell, a correspondent for the New York Times, and his colleague Sultan Munadi were seized by Taliban fighters in northern Afghanistan on Saturday as they reported at the scene of a Nato air strike that had left more than 70 people dead.

British-led commandos swooped down on a Taliban hideout in Kunduz before dawn on Wednesday and managed to free Farrell. But in the process Munadi was shot dead and a British paratrooper was also killed, although it is not known who shot them. A woman and a Taliban commander were also killed.

British forces and Prime Minister Gordon Brown have praised the success of the operation, but former members of the military questioned the risks taken by journalists, especially when warnings about the dangers involved had already been given.

”He got caught and he knew full well that people would have to risk their lives in order to save him,” Andy McNab, a former member of Britain’s Special Air Service said of Farrell (46), a correspondent with long experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.

”That is irresponsible — it is not a game out there. I don’t care if he puts his own life at risk, but he put other peoples’ lives at risk — and they are dead,” he wrote in the Sun, Britain’s most widely read daily newspaper.

Colonel Tim Collins, a former SAS officer, was also critical of the decision-making, particularly after Afghan security forces had warned journalists about travelling to Kunduz, a northern province where the Taliban has gained strength.

”Unfortunately in journalism you do come across people who believe they are infallible,” Collins told the Telegraph. The journalist, he said, had ”a big thank you to give to the people who gave their lives to make up for his mistakes”.

Detailed account
Farrell, who joined the New York Times from the London Times in 2007, produced his own detailed description of his and Munadi’s ordeal on Thursday, describing how they and the driver had planned for the trip to Kunduz before making it.

”The drivers made a few phone calls and said the road north appeared to be safe until mid- to late afternoon,” he wrote. ”It was close to the cut-off point, but if we left immediately we could do it. We left within minutes.”

Later Farrell describes how he, Munadi and the driver travelled to the scene of the Nato bombing, which had targetted two fuel tankers, but did not approach the tankers themselves.

”I checked with Sultan and the driver to see if they felt safe going there, and they said it seemed all right. We edged along a narrow country lane and came out on the riverbank with the tankers a few hundred yards ahead.”

After interviewing people at the scene, he described the moment just before the Taliban arrived and seized them.

”A crowd began to gather, time passed and we grew nervous. I do not know how long we were there, but it was uncomfortably long. I am comfortable with the decision to go to the riverbank, but fear we spent too long there,” he wrote.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has made no comment on the decision-making that led to the incident, but issued a statement on Wednesday expressing relief at Farrell’s release and distress at the death of Munadi. The driver escaped.

”While there is relief that Stephen Farrell has been safely freed, Munadi’s death highlights the growing danger faced by all Afghan journalists and foreign reporters, who are working and risking their lives to cover a story that is taking an ever higher toll on the country and its people,” the group said.

Gordon Brown’s spokesperson was repeatedly quizzed on Thursday about the process that led to British paratroopers being dispatched to rescue Farrell, saying that Brown himself had been kept informed about the secret and dangerous operation.

”He knew that the operation was likely to take place but he was not actually the person who made the final decision,” the spokesperson said of Brown.

”The regret, obviously, is that there was any loss of life at all,” he said. ”But these are very difficult and challenging operations.”

At the end of his account of the rescue, Farrell notes the debt of gratitude he owes to the soldiers who saved him.

”There were some celebrations among the mainly British soldiers on the aircraft home, which soon fell silent … I thanked everyone who was still alive to thank. It wasn’t, and never will be, enough.” — Reuters

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Luke Baker
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