KABUL, Afghanistan — During the first two days of captivity, The New York Times reporter and his Afghan translator were optimistic about being released. Then more Taliban came to the hide-out and taunted the captives about an Italian journalist who was freed while his Afghan interpreter was beheaded.
The menace grew — until British commandos launched a rescue raid. The reporter survived; his Afghan colleague died in a volley of gunfire as he shouted "Journalist! Journalist!" Four others, including a British soldier, also were killed.
Stephen Farrell, who was not injured in the rescue Wednesday, is one of a half-dozen foreign journalists to be kidnapped in Afghanistan over the last several years. His Times colleague, David Rohde, was abducted by militants south of Kabul last November and eventually escaped his captors while being held in Pakistan.
Obstacles for journalists
The kidnappings illustrate some of the obstacles for reporters in covering an increasingly lethal war. August saw a record number of U.S. troops die in combat, and bombings wounded three journalists embedded with them: two from The Associated Press and one from CBS Radio News.
Farrell, 46, exposed himself to a different danger. He and his 34-year-old translator, Sultan Munadi, ventured without military escort to the site of a NATO airstrike on two hijacked fuel tankers in a Taliban-controlled area of northern Afghanistan to interview villagers about civilian casualties from the attack.
It was an important story. The top NATO commander, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, had made protecting Afghan civilians a top priority, and there were conflicting claims of how many civilians had died in the bombing Friday. Police had warned reporters of the dangers of traveling to the village in Kunduz province, and other Western journalists, including some from the AP, went there in the company of NATO forces.
New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said reporters in the field are allowed a great deal of leeway, and that they are the best ones to judge the level of risk. He added that the newspaper would carry out a security review after the latest abduction.
The Times reported that while Farrell and Munadi were interviewing Afghans on Saturday near the site of the airstrike, an old man approached and warned them to leave. Soon after, gunshots rang out and people shouted that Taliban fighters were approaching. Across the Kunduz river, a group of about 10 militants with Kalashnikovs and machine guns were running toward them.
The Taliban captured the journalists. Their driver fled and notified Farrell's colleagues in Kabul.
Men moved several times
The Times kept the kidnappings quiet out of concern for the men's safety, and other media organizations, including the AP, did not report the abductions.
According to Farrell's account in the Times, the captors moved the two men several times and eventually put them in a tiny room. On the third day, some new fighters, apparently more senior Taliban figures from elsewhere in Afghanistan, arrived and discussed moving their hostages out of the Kunduz area.
Afghan officials believed the two Times journalists were originally held by a Mullah Qadir, but were handed off to a commander Mullah Salaam and held in the village of Ghor Tepa, said Lt. Gen. Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, an Afghan army investigator sent to Kunduz by President Hamid Karzai to look into the case.
The Times reported that the militants taunted Munadi, reminding him of the case in 2007 when kidnappers released Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo but beheaded his translator and another Afghan colleague.
Farrell, an experienced reporter who was once held captive in Iraq, thought the atmosphere turned menacing.
Video: Alcohol banned on Kabul base Before dawn on Wednesday, they could hear helicopters approaching.
"We were all in a room, the Talibs all ran, it was obviously a raid," the Times quoted Farrell as saying.
The militants scattered, though one returned and tipped his gun toward them and then left again without firing. After a while, Farrell and Munadi went out into a courtyard. With Munadi in front, they ran in the dark along the compound's high mud-brick wall. They heard British and Afghan voices — and a flurry of bullets.
After moving along the wall for about 60 feet (18 meters), Munadi raised his hands, walked into the open and shouted, "Journalist! Journalist!"
"He was three seconds away from safety," Farrell was quoted as saying. "I thought we were safe. He just walked into a hail of bullets."
Farrell, a dual Irish-British citizen, said he then dived into a ditch. For the next couple of minutes, he focused on the British voices. Then he shouted: "British hostage! British hostage!"
The British voices told him to come near, and that's when he 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."
Commando dies in firefight
A British commando also died in the firefight. Also killed were a Taliban commander, the owner of the house in which the captives were held, and an unidentified woman, said Mohammad Sami Yowar, a spokesman for the Kunduz governor.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the operation was carried out after "extensive planning and consideration," and that those involved knew the high risks. Brown called the mission "breathtaking heroism."
Keller said he had understood from the military officials that they did not intend to conduct a raid unless the situation turned "particularly menacing and they had actionable intelligence and a high probability of success."
Keller said he did not know what triggered the decision to carry out the raid, but that Farrell told him the situation had turned "menacing." Keller said it was possible the militants may have planned to move the hostages, and said he would not second-guess the military's decision to take action.
Journalists gather for prayer
Late Wednesday, Afghan journalists who work for international news outlets gathered at Munadi's house in Kabul for an Islamic prayer. The family buried Munadi without having the body examined to help determine if British bullets or Taliban gunfire killed him.
A British defense official said he couldn't rule out the possibility he was killed by British gunfire.
Munadi, a married father of two, was first employed by the Times in 2002, according to his colleagues. He left the company a few years later to work for a radio station. Last year he traveled to Germany to study for a master's degree. He returned to Kabul last month to see his family and agreed to accompany Farrell to Kunduz on a freelance basis.
In a 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."
Farrell joined the Times in 2007 in Baghdad, and has covered both the Afghan and Iraq conflicts for the newspaper.
He was briefly held hostage in Iraq in 2004, when he was working for The Times of London. Militants questioned him and freelance U.S. journalist Orly Halpern for about seven hours before letting them go, he was quoted as saying afterward.
At least 16 Afghan and foreign journalists have been kidnapped in Afghanistan since January 2002, according to Reporters Without Borders.
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The Associated Press and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.