…Italian PM demands for explanation from Britain over failure.
Heavily armed soldiers and men of the State Security Service (SSS), reportedly supported by British security operatives in a commando-like operation on Thursday stormed a criminal hideout at Mabera area of Sokoto to free two expatriates, an Italian Franco Lamolinara and Briton Christopher McManus who were kidnapped in Kebbi State May last year.
The operation started around 10am when the security personnel sneaked to Mabera, a sandy suburb in Sokoto metropolis without attracting the attention of the residents of the area. Soon, they cordoned off the un-tarred road leading to the detached building where the abductors were hiding.
Sensing the presence of the security personnel whose operation was heralded by an aerial patrol of the area with a military helicopter, the abductors opened fire. They started shooting sporadically into the air, Weekly Trust gathered. On their part, the soldiers who laid ambush on the abductors from all sides reciprocated by shooting at the house where the abductors were with the abducted expatriates.
Weekly Trust gathered that before the soldiers engaged the kidnappers in the gun duel, they asked residents who were attracted to the area by the gunshots to leave. Witnesses told our correspondent that the operators of a block factory opposite the abductors’ residence had to lie face-down. They were in that situation throughout the operation that lasted till 7pm. The gun duel lasted for hours, throwing residents of the area into fear. As the battle went on, an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) was deployed to join the assault.
Resident who were watching the operation from afar, said the kidnappers killed the British and Italian engineers when the soldiers were about to overpower them. “They killed the foreigners and threw their lifeless bodies outside the gate. But before then, a woman who was among the kidnappers came out from the house and from afar we saw her talking to the soldiers. She had a gunshot injury on her leg,” Kabir Mohammed who resides in the area, said.
According to him, the soldiers took the woman aside and the gun battle continued. He said the gateman was shot shortly after the woman left when he was trying to close the gate from inside. At the end of the operation, he said he saw the soldiers carrying the lifeless bodies of two of the abductors and that of the gateman.
“There was a time when the abductors engaged my service to construct mosquito net for them,” said Mohammed. “They paid me 1,000 naira for the small work I did for them but I did not see any foreign nationals among them. I entered the house but not an inner apartment. The people I saw in the compound were more than 10.” A civil servant, Mani Abubakar, who resides in the area said his attention was attracted to the house when a helicopter was patrolling only the building. “I was in my house when I noticed the helicopter and some minutes later I started hearing gunshots from the house,” he said. “I was peeping from my compound and throughout the operation I did not see any military or security operatives. Four hours into the gun battle, the kidnappers jumped the fence of their house to an uncompleted building near them. From there they were shooting and the soldiers set tires ablaze and were throwing it to them.”
Residents besieged the area a day after the failed rescue operation. From across the state residents of Sokoto yesterday trooped to the house out of curiosity, as early as 7am spectators continued to troop to the destroyed building. When our correspondent visited, people were seen moving from room to room in the house.
Weekly Trust noticed numerous gunshot holes in the building close to the house. Tyres were seen in an uncovered soak-away pit in the building. At the main house of the abductors, also, gunshot holes could be seen on the walls. After entering the gate of the house, our correspondent saw a two bedroom flat. Inside the compound, our correspondent saw three rooms each with a toilet. In one of the toilets, there was blood splashed all over. Spectators said it was where the expatriates were killed.
Efforts to get the landlord or caretaker of the house yielded no result as the occupant of the only house facing the building refused to talk to the press. Meanwhile, residents of a building allegedly owned by the landlord of the building where the kidnappers lived have deserted the house. The house carries the same design and colour with the house where the kidnapers stayed.
When contacted on phone during the operation on Thursday, the spokesperson of the Sokoto State Police Command, ASP Almustapha Sani said the operation was carried out by the SSS and the Army and not the police.“But on our part, we have fortified the whole state with our operatives,” he said.
Several calls put to the Sokoto state Director of SSS, Alhaji Jibril Danmallam on Thursday and Friday were unsuccessful as he was not picking his calls. However, Weekly Trust learnt that information on the location of the captors was received through people arrested in a raid on a Boko Haram hideout in Zaria on Tuesday night. A senior security official said in the Zaria raid a top Boko Haram factional leader named Abu Muhammad was captured along with some of his followers.
It was from those arrested in the raid that the security agencies extracted information about the location of the kidnapped expatriates, the source said. After getting what they considered “credible information,” the security agencies notified President Jonathan who then sought the approval of the British authorities to attempt freeing the kidnapped men.
British Prime Minister David Cameron in a statement yesterday confirmed he authorised the rescue attempt that went awry. Mr. Cameron said he called Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti to inform him of the “tragic conclusion” of the operation. “We are still awaiting confirmation of the details, but the early indications are clear that both men were murdered by their captors, before they could be rescued,” he said. In an Associated Press report, Italy’s president Yesterday accused Britain of an “inexplicable” failure to consult with his country before the rescue attempt was launched, but British Foreign Secretary William Hague said there was no time to confer and that Italy was informed only once the rescue mission was already under way. “We had to make a decision very quickly to go ahead with this operation, we had very limited time, that constrained how much we were able to consult others,” Hague said at a meeting in Denmark.
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano also demanded an explanation over the use of force to free the hostages. But Britain’s Defense Secretary Philip Hammond told BBC television: “There was intelligence that they were about to be moved, possibly executed and therefore the decision was to go in, aware of course that there were huge risks. Hostage rescue exercises always have huge risks attached … but the decision was made that the best chance of saving their lives was to act.” Hammond said Britain would analyze the operation and discuss findings with the Italians.
Meanwhile, Weekly Trust went to B. Stabilini Construction Company, building the Kebbi State branch of the Central Bank of Nigeria, where the expatriates were kidnapped in May last year was under lock and key yesterday and security personnel said they were asked to cordon the place. All attempts to talk to the site manager failed as one of his aides told Weekly Trust the officer said he would not speak.
It would be recalled that when the two late expatriates were kidnapped, another Italian employee managed to escape during the kidnapping but a Nigerian neighbour who came to help was shot and wounded. About two weeks later, the kidnappers demanded for a ransom of N150 million for the release of the captives.