Posts Tagged ‘Special Forces’
By David Leppard and Miles Amoore
THE SAS made a daring night-time march across the mountains in Afghanistan in a “breathtaking” operation to free the British aid worker Helen Johnston and three other hostages, David Cameron revealed yesterday.
Johnston, a 28-year old nutritionist who lived in Stoke Newington, north London, while studying at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, was rescued unharmed with her three colleagues. More than 10 of the heavily armed kidnappers were killed just after midnight yesterday.
The SAS opted for what Cameron called their “long route march at night” because they did not want to tip off the hostage-takers by arriving in a helicopter. A helicopter raid to rescue another British aid worker, Linda Norgrove, in 2010 went badly wrong. Norgrove was killed by a grenade thrown by a an American Navy Seal during a battle with her captors.
Yesterday’s operation was authorised by the prime minister late on Friday afternoon after he was told by military leaders that the hostage-takers had split into two groups and there was an increased threat to their captives’ lives.
In a significant toughening of the government’s stance towards those who kidnap Britons, Cameron said the outcome served as a warning that such groups could expect “a swift and brutal end”.
Speaking outside Downing Street, he praised the courage of the strike force of about 30 SAS troops who carried out the rescue: “It was an extraordinarily brave, breathtaking even, operation that our troops had to carry out. I pay tribute to their skill and dedication.” Read the rest of this entry »
The burly figure of Sabar Lal, a 49-year-old gem dealer with a salt and pepper beard, loomed in the arched doorway of his home. Facing him in the garden, a team of US special forces and Afghan commandos levelled their assault rifles.
As helicopters buzzed overhead, five bullets fired from one of the soldiers’ automatic weapons thudded into Lal’s chest and head and sent him reeling. Blood oozed onto his grey marble patio, forming a large pool around him.
The killing, in Jalalabad three months ago, provoked outrage among tribal elders, MPs and government officials. They depicted it as the cold-blooded execution of an innocent man at the hands of ruthless American aggressors who had relied on faulty intelligence to target their prey.
The Sunday Times has established that Lal once received cash from MI6 to counter Taliban insurgents, fought against them alongside British special forces and helped the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to eradicate poppies used to make opium.
But this newspaper’s investigation also found that, for at least the past two years, Lal had worked as an undercover Al-Qaeda operative — and that he paid the militant commander responsible for the kidnapping of Linda Norgrove, the British aid worker who died during a failed rescue attempt last year.
The curious life of Sabar Lal raises as many questions as his death and offers an unusual insight into the shifting allegiances that make Afghanistan such a volatile and unpredictable place. Read the rest of this entry »
By Nicci Smith and Miles Amoore
Pakistan gave the go-ahead to American airstrikes last weekend that inadvertently killed 24 of their own troops, according to new claims from US officials.
The account is the latest twist in the blame game surrounding the worst friendly fire incident in the history of the 10-year war in Afghanistan, an event that has plunged America’s already precarious relations with Pakistan into a new crisis.
US officials speaking to The Wall Street Journal said that an Afghan-led assault force that included American commandos came under fire from a camp in Pakistan’s Mohmand tribal region, a lawless border area that adjoins Kunar province in Afghanistan.
Afghan intelligence said the force was searching for a senior insurgent commander, but they stumbled onto a unit of Pakistani soldiers dressed in plain clothes, who shot at them first.
“The reports show that the Americans thought these guys were insurgents, so they opened fire on them,” a senior intelligence official told The Sunday Times.
The “militants” now appear to have been Pakistani border troops who had established a temporary base.
An initial American account based on interviews with the commandos claims the team requested aerial back-up to strike the camp, contacting a joint border-control centre to establish whether Pakistani forces were in the area. The centre is manned by US, Afghan and Pakistani officials to coordinate information to prevent clashes.
When called, the Pakistani officials at the centre allegedly said they had no military forces in the area, clearing the way for the airstrikes.
The US has acknowledged mistakes were made on both sides. To protect troops, officials working in the centre need to know whether NATO forces are planning operations, but no advance warning had been sent of the 26 November operation.
US officials have been reluctant in the past to share information for fear of it leaking out to insurgents.
Washington has expressed its regret over the “ tragic accident”, but pointedly stopping short of an apology.
But its condolences have been rebuffed by an unforgiving Pakistan, where the military and government have united to angrily condemn the incident as an “unprovoked act of blatant aggression.”
The Pakistani military categorically denied the latest American version of events, claiming Pakistan had been fed “wrong information” and was contacted only after the strike began. Read the rest of this entry »
A Taliban fighter has given the first account of how his unit fired two “opportunist” rocket-propelled grenades that brought down a Chinook helicopter, killing 38 elite American and Afghan troops in the deadliest attack of Nato’s 10-year campaign.
The special forces, some from the unit that killed Osama Bin Laden, had flown into a remote valley to kill a group of Taliban commanders who were sheltering in the Sayedabad district of Wardak province, according to the fighter.
The dead, identified last week by a special forensic team at Dover air force base in Delaware, included 17 Navy Seals — some from Team 6, the unit that killed Bin Laden — five other navy special forces, three air force special forces and five crew. Seven Afghan commandos and an interpreter were also on board.
The helicopter was shot down as it came in to land close to where two Taliban had taken up sentry positions in the Tangi Valley, the fighter, whose nom de guerre is Haqiar, said. His account largely tallies with Nato’s version of events.
Haqiar, 24, who claims to be the only surviving member of the team that shot down the helicopter, said fighters were already on high alert because they had seen many US drones patrolling during the day.
They observed Iftar — the Islamic custom of breaking the fast during the holy month of Ramadan — and as soon as they had finished their meal, Haqiar and his comrade, Gulam Hazrat, took up guard duties in a ditch beside a terraced field overlooking the valley.
At about 11pm, a radio message from Haqiar’s commander, Mullah Mohibullah, told them American forces had just killed six Taliban fighters further down the valley in the village of Qarya-e-Amir. “We knew something big was going to happen,” he said.
An hour later, Haqiar and Hazrat heard a helicopter approaching and saw it silhouetted against the moon.
The Chinook was coming in to land about 100 yards from their position, escorted by two attack helicopters. The pilot appeared to be heading for a site between two mosques in the valley below their position, Haqiar said.
“The Americans knew that the mosques and the surrounding fields and gardens had lots of Taliban commanders sleeping there,” said Haqiar.
As the Chinook reached eye-level, he wanted to ask his commander for permission to fire because he knew the shot would give away his position. But Hazrat launched the rocketpropelled grenade (RPG) before Haqiar could reach his radio.
“He fired and it landed inside the chopper and exploded. I fired one and it hit the nose of the bird. The chopper lost balance and fell to the ground on its side and rolled. There was a huge explosion and we could see into the back of the Chinook and we saw the inside was on fire,” said Haqiar.
Nato later said the helicopter took fire from several insurgent positions as it made its approach.
The flames spread through the helicopter and quickly ignited the ammunition on board, sending sparks shooting into the night sky, Haqiar said.
“We could hear the bullets exploding till the next day. The flames lit up the valley. Suddenly it was so light,” he said.
The two fighters turned on their radios to inform their commander that they had shot down the helicopter and began to flee with other Taliban. They dropped their weapons and ran through fields.
“I kept looking over my shoulder. The helicopter was still on fire and the other choppers couldn’t do anything to help them,” said Haqiar.
Before sunrise, more American soldiers arrived in the valley along with three medical evacuation helicopters, according to Haqiar.
The troops began to search houses, bazaars and fields in the valley, but Haqiar and a few of his men had already escaped. Hazrat fled to the neighbouring district of Chak, where he prepared to flee the country with other insurgents.
Haqiar’s version of events agrees with Nato’s and he denied an Afghan report that the Taliban had deliberately lured the Chinook into the valley. He said high-level Taliban commanders from other provinces had convened in the valley, which they use as a staging post for attacks in the surrounding provinces.
Nato said later that American special forces had flown into the valley to pursue a group of insurgents fleeing from the area where US troops had just killed the six Taliban fighters.
The insurgents belonged to a network previously under the command of Mohibullah’s boss, Din Mohammed, who had been killed in an earlier special forces operation.
General John Allen, the Nato commander in Afghanistan, said: “The intelligence that had been generated to this point led us to believe there was an enemy network in the Tangi Valley and the purpose of this mission was to go after the leadership of that network.”
Days after the crash, the Americans used local intelligence to track Hazrat and Mohibullah to a wooded area in the district. A strike by an American F-16 fighter jet killed both men along with several Taliban comrades.
“The two men were attempting to flee the country,” said a Nato spokesman.
Haqiar escaped to the village of Hassan Khel to “relax and pray”, he said. “When we heard that this was the group of special forces who killed Bin Laden we were so happy and proud. We didn’t know the infidels on board were so special.
“Before, we believed we couldn’t shoot down the choppers with our weapons. They used to say the air pressure would destroy our RPGs before they could hit their target. Now we know we can do it. We will train others to do the same.”
Haqiar is now on the run. He intends to flee to Pakistan or Iran. The Sunday Times tracked down the fighter, who was extremely nervous about being recorded on tape, via an intermediary from the same district. The interview was conducted near Kabul. He said he wanted to tell the world about the attack, which he said had “made all Muslims proud”.
Additional reporting: Lalage Snow
THE two helicopters swooped low over a cluster of mud homes, whirling in the cold night sky before landing in a wheat field on the edge of the small Afghan village.
From his home nearby, 23-year-old Najibullah Omar strained his eyes in the darkness as he made out the faint shapes of armed men pouring from the helicopters’ bellies.
A third helicopter circled menacingly in the moonless sky above the village of Karakhil in Wardak province, southwest of Kabul.
Then a loud explosion shook the ground and a plume of smoke rose from his cousin Hamidullah’s house 20 yards away. Its guest room caught fire. Omar heard a burst of gunfire before all went quiet.
His worst fears were confirmed the moment he walked through the compound gate at first light.
The body of his cousin, a 32-year-old construction engineer who had taken a break from his job in a far-off province to visit his family, lay sprawled next to those of his wife and their seven-year-old son. Blood ran in dark pools on the mud floor of the terrace outside their door.
The wife and son had been shot in the head, each with a single bullet. The engineer had died from a shot to the chest. The precision of the killings, coupled with his failure to find any bullet casings after the raid, led Omar to believe that his cousin was murdered either by US special forces or by an intelligence agency.
The sole survivor was the couple’s younger son, aged six, whose upper torso was riddled with puncture wounds from grenade shrapnel.
Some of the villagers dug away the fallen wooden beams, revealing the charred corpses of three Taliban fighters — a mid-level commander and two bodyguards, apparently killed where they slept by a missile from the circling helicopter.
“The Taliban often force themselves into our homes. What can we do?” said Omar. “We’re afraid of them. It’s better to keep your house and shelter the Taliban when they demand it than to lose your home.”
Last week General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of Nato troops in Afghanistan, responded to President Hamid Karzai’s call for a ban on night raids by publicly ordering his troops to curb their use.
The general’s order aims to end the killing and detention of innocent civilians during night operations. According to the United Nations, 98 civilians were killed in such raids last year, provoking widespread outrage. They are believed to have swollen the ranks of the Taliban, who score an easy propaganda victory every time Nato kills a civilian.
In his order, first issued confidentially to officers in January, McChrystal wrote that violating Afghans’ homes made it more difficult to win vital public support.
The new policy has created tensions with officers commanding special forces units, who often launch night operations without informing Nato commanders. Read the rest of this entry »