NYT reporter freed; Afghan aide killed in rescue

KABUL - September 9, 2009

Reporter Stephen Farrell was taken hostage 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 U.S. jets, caused a number of civilian casualties.

One British service member died during the early morning raid, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, while the Times reported that Farrell's Afghan translator, Sultan Munadi, 34, also was killed. Brown said that "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 defense 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 U.S. jets dropped two bombs on the tankers, igniting them in a massive explosion. There were reports that 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 interviewing 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 traveled 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, including The Associated Press, did not report the abductions following a request from the Times.

A story posted on the Times' Web site quoted Farrell saying he had been "extracted" by a commando raid carried out by "a lot of soldiers" in a firefight.

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

Farrell, 46, a dual Irish-British citizen, 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 defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the incident, 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 defense ministry said in a statement.

The British prime minister said the operation was carried out after "extensive planning and consideration," and that those involved knew the high risks they faced. Brown called the mission "breathtaking heroism."

"As we all know, and as last night once again demonstrated, our armed forces have the skill and courage to act. They are truly the finest among us, and all of us in Britain pay tribute to them, and to the families and communities who sustain them in their awesome responsibilities," Brown said.

Several Western reporters have been kidnapped in Afghanistan the last several years, mostly while traveling in dangerous districts but also in and around Kabul. Kidnappings by Taliban are often for ideological reasons, though kidnappings by criminals are done for ransom payments. Afghan businessmen in Kabul have been frequently targeted by criminal kidnappers the last couple years.

Munadi was first employed by The New York Times in 2002, according to his colleagues. He left the company a few years later to work for a local radio station.

He left Afghanistan last year to study for a master's degree in Germany. He came back to Kabul last month for a holiday and to see his family, and agreed to accompany Farrell to Kunduz on a freelance basis. He was married and had two young sons.

In a New York Times Web blog this month, Munadi wrote that he would never leave Afghanistan permanently and that "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."

"And if I leave this country, if other people like me leave this country, who will come to Afghanistan?" he wrote. "Will it be the Taliban who come to govern this country? That is why I want to come back, even if it means cleaning the streets of Kabul. That would be a better job for me, rather than working, for example, in a restaurant in Germany."

Though much of military effort in Afghanistan is focused on the volatile south, Kunduz and some other northern provinces have been increasingly hit by attacks over the past year, and officials say the security situation appears to be deteriorating there.

Farrell joined the Times in 2007 in Baghdad. He has covered both the Afghan and Iraq conflicts for the paper.

He was briefly held hostage with a group of journalists traveling in Iraq in 2004, when he was working for The Times of London. Militants questioned him and the others for about 10 hours before letting them go, he told CNN afterward.

Farrell was the second Times journalist to be kidnapped in Afghanistan in a year.

In June, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Rohde and his Afghan colleague Tahir Ludin escaped from their Taliban captors in northwestern Pakistan. They had been abducted Nov. 10 south of Kabul and were moved across the border.


Associated Press reporters Jason Straziuso and Heidi Vogt in Kabul and Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.

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