A delegation of Afghan elders tasked with negotiating the freedom of British hostage Linda Norgrove was close to the mountain hut where she was being held when US special forces launched the rescue mission that resulted in her death, Afghan officials said yesterday.
"We had already arrived in the area but then the fighting started and it was hopeless, so we turned back," said Haji Ghulam Ehsan Adil, head of the Kunar provincial council, who led a group of 20 tribal elders sent by the Kunar governor to free the 36-year-old Scottish development worker. There had been "a complete lack of co-ordination" between the Afghan group's efforts and those of Nato, he added.
The claims that negotiators were so close to Norgrove adds to the recriminations caused by the decision to send in a rescue team of heavily armed US special forces last Friday morning. British and American officials initially said Norgrove had been killed by a Taliban suicide bomber, but later conceded it was likely she had been killed by a grenade thrown by a US soldier.
At their home on the Isle of Lewis, Norgrove's parents urged the US and UK authorities to release full details of the operation that led to her death. Alasdair Allan, the MSP for the Western Isles, wrote to both the foreign secretary, William Hague, and the US embassy in London today, asking for a full explanation of the circumstances surrounding the case after discussions with the family.
"The family deserve the maximum amount of information," he said. "The fact that we've had contradictory stories over the last few days doesn't help. I have today written to the US embassy and the UK government – the foreign secretary – asking them to make sure the family is given accurate information."
Meanwhile, a senior western official in Kabul said it was difficult to see why the US and UK governments did not give negotiation a greater chance. "We've had over seventy abductions of NGO people this year, with just three or four killed. That's a 5% chance of being killed," he said.
Paul Refsdal, a Norwegian journalist who was kidnapped for six days in the same part of Kunar last November, criticised the rescue bid: "When I was in captivity I called my embassy and I was very clear that I didn't want any rescue attempt," he said. "I understand that every politician wants to take credit for the raid on Entebbe," he added, referring to the successful 1976 Israeli commando raid on a hijacked airliner in Uganda. "But this was stupid, really."
The British government insists there had been little chance of a negotiated release for Norgrove. "At no stage was any serious attempt made to negotiate by those holding her," William Hague, the foreign secretary, told parliament on Monday. Today, Hague confirmed that he had "given the green light" for a rescue operation within hours of Norgrove's kidnap and acknowledged that it was embarrassing to have had to revise the initial account of how she died.
"When we are told something in good faith, we must tell the country that information in good faith. It can turn out to be wrong, but that is better than hiding any information. It is better than withholding things that we know or have been told."
A Foreign Office official refused to say whether the government knew a tribal delegation was in the area as the rescue mission began. "The local negotiations began from the first day and continued throughout the whole time she was held," the official said. "But while we think that those negotiations may have contributed to the release of her colleagues, at no time did they show any sign of making progress in her case. That is why the rescue operation was the best option."
Barack Obama has set up a military commission of inquiry, led by a US general and assisted by a British brigadier, to "get to the bottom" of the deadly raid. A US military spokesman said the results of the investigation would be released, including Norgrove's postmortem carried out under the direction of the UK government to determine the cause of her death.
But the volte-face in Nato's early account of the mission, and the lack of explanation for the reasons behind the mission, have caused much cynicism in Kabul.
"All the facts are not on the table. And if you see how the story has evolved since Saturday, you must place a huge caveat on anything that comes out at the moment," said one western diplomat. Some Nato officials say Norgrove had to be rescued because she was about to be moved to Pakistan's tribal belt, where she would have been beyond western military help. This account has not been confirmed.
Most analysts agree there is little point in criticising the raid itself. "These things are hit and miss by nature," said one. However, they wonder whether it could have been avoided altogether by negotiating.
Most kidnappings in Afghanistan are resolved peacefully In many cases the critical factor is money – ransoms are nearly always paid.
One western diplomat said that the British government's refusal to consider a payment for Norgrove meant her chances of survival were much slimmer.
Two Afghan security officials in Kunar described the captors as a Salafist group led by three men – Mullah Basir, who lost several relatives in the US special forces raid, Ismail and Qari Rohullah.
The Long War Journal website named the group as Jamaat ul Dawa al Quran, a militant band headed by the cleric Haji Dawran.
One of the Afghan officials said he suspected that an Afghan employee of Development Alternatives inc, the US company Norgrove worked for, had been being complicit in the kidnapping.
The Taliban have a complicated relationship with the kidnap business. Under the insurgency's official code of conduct, kidnapping for ransom is "strictly banned". "If a group or an individual is committing such a crime in the name of the Islamic Emirate," one rule reads, "the provincial head will disarm them with the consent of the leadership and harshly punish them."
But on the ground the Taliban frequently kidnap civilians, Afghan officials and foreign aid workers and journalists, either to make money or to demonstrate their control over an area.