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.”
Last night all four hostages were said to be in “good condition”. Johnston is understood to have thanked Cameron after he telephoned her at the British embassy in Kabul, where the hostages were flown by helicopter.
Her parents, Philip and Patricia Johnston, said in a statement: “We are deeply grateful to everyone involved in her rescue, to those who worked tirelessly on her behalf, and to family and friends for their love, prayers and support over the last 12 days.”
Johnston, Moragwe Oirere, a 26-year-old Kenyan medic, and two Afghan aid workers were all employees of the Swiss-based aid group Medair. They were kidnapped on May 22 by a group of armed men while they were trekking on horseback to treat villagers suffering from malnutrition in the remote mountainous province of Badakhshan.
After learning of their abduction, Cameron convened daily meetings of Cobra, the government committee that deals with emergencies. By the beginning of last week reports filtering through to the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in the country located the hostages in a complex of caves outside Gulati, a village in the remote mountains near the Tajikistan border in the extreme north of Afghanistan.
Their captors, said to be 10-15 heavily armed men, were understood to be a loose-knit group of local criminals with some ties to the Taliban. Whitehall officials described them as “criminally motivated rather than politically motivated”.
A council leader in the provincial capital of Faizabad claimed the kidnappers had demanded the release of two local criminals and “lots of money”. He said the criminals were being held in Kabul accused of murder, robbery and rape.
“They [the kidnappers] were simply criminals who wanted their commanders released from jail and they wanted money,” he said. An Afghan intermediary who relayed the kidnapper’s demands to local police was arrested and remains in police custody, according to a senior Afghan intelligence official.
Afghan intelligence agents and police officials, using information passed to them by local informants, tracked the hostages as they were moved between mud huts and caves during their 11-day ordeal. At one stage, local informants told police that the hostages were within five kilometres of the Tajik border.
A Whitehall official said that by Thursday the Cobra team had learned that the kidnappers had split into two groups.
It was initially believed that Johnston and Oirere were being held by one group in an area of mud huts. The two Afghan hostages were thought to be being held by a second group in a network of caves a few miles away in an area known as the Valley of the Ants.
Cameron approved the operation at a final meeting of Cobra on Friday afternoon and Isaf’s commander, General John Allen, ordered the go ahead.
A contingent of British and American special forces supported by a dozens more paratroopers had been flown by helicopter into the area early in the week. Yesterday, in the early hours, helicopters left a forward operating base in northern Afghanistan, dropping off the team of special forces soldiers on a densely forested mountainside. While the American special forces headed towards the cave complex, about 30 British troopers from D Squadron 22 SAS undertook a long march through a rocky gully to the mud hut.
The Americans found a group of kidnappers in the caves and killed them. But there were no hostages even though they’d entered so deep into the caves that they lost radio communication at one point. At about the same time the British SAS came across all four hostages being held by the second group of kidnappers.
Although the kidnappers were armed with heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s, the SAS killed them after a firefight. The hostages, shocked but unharmed, were then flown back to Kabul.
Lieutenant-General Adrian Bradshaw, the British deputy Isaf commander, said the mission had taken place in “some of the most demanding country on the planet”. “They had to cover the ground very rapidly . . . the terrain was incredibly difficult — very rocky with scrub, in a deep gully. It was about the most testing target you could imagine,” he said.
“It does take real skill and there’s real risk involved in this sort of operation, and we wouldn’t have done it were there not a very clear threat to the lives of the hostages.”
Additional Reporting: Tim Ripley