Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Linda Norgrove rescue - Guardian's detailed account

Julian Borger, in the Guardian, has just published a startling, detailed account of the failed mission to rescue Linda Norgrove. You can read the story on the Guardian website and the extracted details are published below.

From the Guardian:
From interviews with well-informed sources, both military and civilian, the Guardian has put together this detailed account of the failed rescue mission.

Norgrove, originally from Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands, was seized on 26 September, when her car was forced off the road in Kunar province, near the Pakistan border.

Soon after her abduction, she was taken to a stronghold in a steep-sided valley 8,000ft (2,400 metres) up in the mountains of northern Kunar. But her kidnappers were being watched. US intelligence had a network of informers in the area and drones circling above. They were watching Norgrove's captors and eavesdropping on their radio conversations. All that intelligence was immediately passed to a British officer.

By late last week it was clear, according to sources, that Norgrove's life was in very grave danger. One group of local elders was calling for her execution, talking of killing her like "the Russian" some years before, an apparent reference to the long war with the Soviet army, in which captured soldiers were often slaughtered in horrifying ways.

The other option her captors were debating was shipping Norgrove to North Waziristan, the tribal territory in western Pakistan, which is almost entirely outside the control of government forces, and where it would be virtually impossible to keep track of the British woman and her abductors.

From the outset, there was little question that if there was to be a rescue mission it would be carried out by Seal Team Six, a secretive US navy unit used for high-risk counter-terrorist operations. Commanders considered the only other special forces qualified to carry out the assault were the US Delta Force and Britain's SAS, which had rescued a British-Irish journalist, Stephen Farrell, last year.

However, the SAS were too far away and did not have the MH-60, a Black Hawk helicopter highly modified for special forces night operations and just about capable of functioning in such thin mountain air. Furthermore, Seal Team Six had been operating in that area of northern Kunar for months. They knew the terrain and their adversaries.

The assault was launched before dawn on Saturday morning, when it was thought the insurgents would be at their most groggy. Landing the Seals some distance away and creeping of the compound on foot was impossible. There was nowhere flat to set down for miles around.

The only realistic option was for the US special forces to descend on the target compound out of the night sky, sliding down ropes, guns blazing. Far away, in the taskforce headquarters, the operation was being watched on six big screens, each showing a live feed from a different source — the drones, the helicopters and even the Seals' helmet cameras. It was not the sharp green clarity as portrayed Hollywood films – sometimes a feed would be lost as an aircraft made a turn for example – but the unfolding action was clear enough.

In the first few violent minutes, the plan seemed to be working. The six abductors holding Norgrove stumbled out of their huts into the central compound and were shot and killed. What the Seals did not see however, was one of the insurgents dragging Linda Norgrove out of a hut with him.

She managed to break away and lay down, hunched up in the foetal position – the safest thing to do given the hail of gunfire around her – but on that moonless night, the Seals did not spot her, even with their night vision goggles.

To the horror of the senior officers watching back at headquarters, the six big screens were lit up by a blast that seemed to come from the vicinity of Norgrove and the insurgent closest to her, and soon afterwards word came from the returning helicopters that Norgrove was mortally wounded. The operation had failed.

The immediate assumption was that the blast had come from a suicide bomb, as it is not unusual for insurgents to slip into suicide vests if there is a risk of attack.

Late on Sunday, however, the taskforce commander acted on a hunch and asked to see the video of the assault stored on the computer hard drive at its headquarters. Running through it again, he spotted one Seal, standing on the roof of one of the huts, toss something underhand into the compound. Four seconds later the screen went bright from the explosion. He called the team in and asked who had thrown a grenade. One man stepped forward.

Within minutes, the Seal Team Six commander was on a secure line to Petraeus with the bad news. It was 7.30am in Kabul, 4am in London, but Petraeus quickly made the call to Downing Street, where a defence aide woke the prime minister

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