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Recriminations in wake of failed British-Nigerian rescue mission of two European hostages
SOKOTO, Nigeria (AP) ' An attempted rescue by British special forces and Nigerian troops of a British and an Italian hostage ended with a blood-splattered house and a dispute between two European nations.
Military forces punched through on Thursday to a house where the two hostages were held but by the time they arrived the two men were dead. Details of how and when they died were unclear, said British Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman Steve Field. But Field said "early indications were that both men were murdered by their captors before they could be rescued."
Gunfire echoed throughout the Mabera neighborhood in the northwestern city of Sokoto duing Thursday's nine-hour operation, said residents. Nigeria's military also used an armored personnel carrier to attempt to storm the building.
British military and intelligence officers had been working within Nigeria for several months ahead of the operation, before a contingent of special forces ' drawn from the elite Special Boat Service ' were deployed in recent weeks, officials familiar with details said.
The house where Chris McManus and Franco Lamolinara were found was splattered with blood on Friday. Calm had returned to the streets. McManus and Lamolinara had been working on a bank construction project in the city before they were kidnapped last May. The kidnappers claimed ties to al-Qaida.
Prescription drugs, including penicillin, anti-malarial tablets and other toiletries, were scattered on the floor of the house, suggesting the men had been there for some time.
Italy's president on Friday accused Britain of an "inexplicable" failure to consult with his country before the rescue attempt was launched. But British Foreign Secretary William 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.
Sokoto is in northwest Nigeria, not far from the border with Niger where Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM, has kidnapped foreigners. Authorities have said AQIM has links with Boko Haram, a Nigerian Islamist extremist group.
After the hostage rescue mission began in Sokoto, three people were arrested, said a top Nigerian security official who asked for anonymity because he is not allowed to speak to press. He said others who were arrested before the military operation had provided information to Nigerian intelligence about the whereabouts of the two hostages. It was unclear those arersted were members of either Boko Haram or AQIM.
Blood spattered the walls around the front door of the house where the hostages were kept. Concrete walls were riddled by large-caliber bullets. Local residents said they believed the two hostages were killed in a back bedroom and that the military had used an armored personnel carrier to attempt to storm the compound through an unfinished house behind it.
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano on Friday demanded an explanation over the use of force.
Hague was holding talks with his Italian counterpart over the failed rescue attempt at a meeting of European foreign ministers in Copenhagen, while Britain's ambassador was meeting with officials in Rome. Field said Italian Premier Mario Monti and the previous Italian government had not raised objections to the possibility of mounting a rescue mission during talks over the last nine months.
In London, the government's crisis committee of political, military and intelligence officials ' known as COBRA ' had met about 20 times since the men were kidnapped to consider the case and options to rescue the hostages.
Arrests made by Nigerian authorities in recent days had provided more concrete information on the whereabouts of those being held captive ' but had also alerted the kidnappers that authorities were on their trail. The presence of British special forces on the ground meant the U.K. was able to get a more accurate picture, but also raised the risk that the kidnappers would become aware of the planned rescue mission.
British officials said those involved in the operation feared the captors had become aware that the "net was closing" on their location.
"Their very strong advice was that it was important to act, and to act quickly and that offered the best chance of getting those people out," Field said.
The streets of Sokoto were calm Friday, with no police or military presence visible.
Stringer reported from London. Associated Press writers Victor L. Simpson in Rome, Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria and Colleen Barry in Milan contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS that the house where hostages were held was not unfinished; an adjacent house was unfinished)