The special forces raid in which British hostage Chris McManus died went ahead as negotiators were closing a £1 million ransom deal, it has been claimed.
By Nick Squires in Rome, Colin Freeman and Magdy Samaan in Cairo
The Nigerian gang who abducted Mr McManus, 28, and his Italian engineer colleague Francesco Molinara, 48, had already received part of the cash when Thursday’s raid took place, sources close to the kidnappers have alleged.
They had intended to release the pair when the rest of the cash was handed over, but in the meantime British intelligence services and their Nigerian counterparts located their hideout and launched the rescue effort.
The claims – denied last night by the Foreign Office – were made by a Mauritanian news agency, Agence Nouakchott D’Information, which is known to have close contacts with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb. Last year it received a video tape of the two hostages, and it has also run interviews with senior figures in AQIM.
Quoting an AQIM source, the agency said talks had been underway “for the liberation of the hostages” for some time.
The kidnappers had even phoned Mr McManus’s family in Manchester, demanding an initial ransom of five million Euros and the release of a number of prisoners.
The British government’s stated policy is never to pay ransoms, but it does not necessarily stand in the way of families or companies paying them, especially if there is seen to be no other safe way of securing a hostage’s release.
Last night a Foreign Office source said it was “not unusual” for kidnappers to contact families directly, but denied that any request for money had been made or that any cash had been handed over.
“There was never any coherent demand, and never any indication that the hostages would be released,” he said. “The operation on Thursday morning took place because there was an imminent threat to the hostages’ lives. The idea that some deal was on the point of conclusion is not accurate.”
According to the news agency, the negotiations were being conducted through a Mauritanian businessman and opposition politician, Mustafa Ould Imam Chafi, who has also previously served as a special advisor to Blaise Compaore, the president of the west African state of Burkina Faso.
Mr Chafi is known to have been involved in face-to-face talks to free other AQIM hostages, including Robert R Fowler, a UN diplomat who was kidnapped by AQIM in Niger in 2008 and held for 130 days. Mr Chafi and another intermediary drove hundreds of miles into the desert to escort Mr Fowler and three other hostages to safety. Last year a warrant went out for his arrest in Mauritania, after he was accused of supporting terrorist groups in the region, although he is thought to claim that the charges against him are politically motivated.
Last night Mr Fowler, who writes about his kidnap ordeal in today’s Sunday Telegraph, said he thought it was possible that Mr Chafi could have been approached for help in the case.
“He was a man who knew the ground well, so I would imagine that anybody trying to conduct similar negotiations with AQIM might well want to seek him out,” said Mr Fowler.
The news agency also claimed that the British negotiators had been “more intransigent” than the Italians in the course of talks. Unlike Downing Street, the Italian government is widely known to take a “softer” approach to kidnappings. It is reported to have paid ransoms to terrorist groups in the past, including some $5 million to secure the release of two aid workers kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents in 2004.
The claim that Britain had proved a less flexible negotiator than Italy has fuelled speculation in Italy that Downing Street might have deliberately declined to tell Rome of the pending raid because it feared the Italians preferred to resolve the situation with a ransom.
“The English, like the Americans, don’t like to tell us about their operations for the simple fact that we are considered trouble-makers, very often preferring to avoid attempts to free hostages in favour of negotiating and buying time,” yesterday’s La Stampa newspaper quoted an intelligence sources as saying.
Additional reporting by Magdy Samaan in Cairo
Culled from www.telegraph.co.ukNo tags for this post.