KABUL – British commandos freed a New York Times reporter early Wednesday from Taliban captives who kidnapped him over the weekend in northern Afghanistan, but one of the commandos and a Times translator were killed in the rescue, officials said.
Reporter Stephen Farrell was taken hostage along with his translator in the northern province of Kunduz on Saturday. German commanders had ordered U.S. jets to drop bombs on two hijacked fuel tankers, causing a number of civilian casualties, and reporters traveled to the area to cover the story.
Two military officials told The Associated Press that one British commando died during the early morning raid. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the death had not been officially announced.
The Times reported that Farrell's Afghan translator, Sultan Munadi, 34, also was killed. Farrell was unhurt.
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 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.
Mohammad Sami Yowar, a spokesman for the Kunduz governor, said British special forces dropped down from helicopters early Wednesday onto the house where the two were being kept, and a gunbattle ensued.
A Taliban commander who was in the house was killed, along with the owner of the house and a woman who was inside, Yowar said. He said Munadi was killed in the midst of the firefight.
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.
Moments later, Farrell said he heard British voices and shouted, "British hostage!" The British voices told him to come over. As he did, Mr. Farrell said he saw Mr. Munadi.
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."
U.S. military spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker confirmed the operation by NATO and Afghan forces, but did not provide further details.
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.
Police warned reporters who had traveled to the capital of Kunduz to cover the tanker airstrike that the village in question was controlled by the Taliban and it would be dangerous to go there.
Farrell joined the Times in 2007 in Baghdad. He has covered both the Afghan and Iraq conflicts for the paper.
Farrell 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.
Meanwhile, a suicide bomber struck outside a British military base in southern Helmand province on Wednesday, killing two Afghan truck drivers and seriously wounding international troops, officials said.
The explosion occurred in a parking area outside the gates of Camp Bastion, said Daoud Ahmadi, a spokesman for the governor. Large trucks that deliver supplies to the camp wait there for clearance to enter the base.
Sidenstricker said initial reports suggested the attacker was a wearing a vest laden with explosives. She said several service members were seriously wounded. She did not provide their nationalities. Several countries have troops on the base.
Ahmadi said the blast also destroyed some trucks.
Southern Afghanistan has been wracked by violence this summer as international troops boosted by new U.S. forces battle the resurgent Taliban. This has been the deadliest year for international troops since the 2001 invasion.