TWO TWO HOSTAGES from Italy and Britain found dead during a botched rescue operation spent their final days living in bare squalor under the watchful eye of their alleged Al Qaeda-linked captors.
They drank water drawn from an underground tank and possibly enduring bouts of malaria and other illnesses. The bodies of Chris McManus and Franco Lamolinara were found yesterday during a joint British-Nigerian rescue operation, which has ignited a diplomatic dispute with Italy.
The country’s president accused Britain of an “inexplicable” failure to consult with Italy before the bungled attempt to rescue the hostages.
At the house where their bodies were discovered, the water supply came from dipping a plastic bucket into a simple underground tank in Sokoto, the major city of Nigeria’s dusty northwest.
Illnesses apparently struck as well: the remains of anti-malaria tablets, cough medicines and penicillin creams littered the compound’s dirt courtyard.
Off one unfurnished bedroom, blood pooled under a toilet and a smashed sink in a tiny bathroom, the site where those living around the compound say hostages McManus, of Britain, and Lamolinara, of Italy, died at the hands of their captors.
As curious children poked their hands through holes left behind by large-calibre ammunition fired in the botched rescue, Italy demanded an explanation for why it learned about the raid only after British special forces began their assault with Nigeria’s military.
Confusion also remained over who was responsible for the kidnapping in the first place, as a radical Islamist sect in Nigeria initially blamed for the abduction denied it was involved.
The rescue attempt began yesterday morning in Sokoto’s Mabera neighborhood, a sprawling maze of sandy roads and single-story cement homes on what used to be fertile farmland surrounding the city of 500,000 people.
Residents said a seemingly unending barrage of gunfire followed, as did an attack led by a military armoured personnel carrier.
Once inside in the compound, soldiers found the two men had been killed. Details of how and when they died remained unclear, said Steve Field, a spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron. But Field said “early indications were that both men were murdered by their captors before they could be rescued.”
The operation grew out of cooperation between Nigeria’s security forces and British military and intelligence officers who had been in the country for several months, officials familiar with the details of the operation said.
Within recent weeks, a contingent of special forces soldiers — drawn from Britain’s elite Special Boat Service — arrived in Nigeria to assist, officials said.
That preparation apparently went on without the knowledge of Italy, whose president, Giorgio Napolitano, demanded an explanation from British officials for the “inexplicable” failure to consult with his country before launching the rescue attempt.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague defended his country’s decision, saying 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,” Hague said at a meeting in Denmark. “We had very limited time. That constrained how much we were able to consult others.”
‘Sharing full information’
Hague held talks with his Italian counterpart over the failed rescue, while Britain’s ambassador to Italy also met with officials in Rome.
After the meeting, Hague and Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi issued a joint statement in which they “agreed on the urgency of sharing full information to facilitate the reconstruction and understanding of these events.”
Information from the raid came from individuals arrested by Nigeria’s security agencies before the operation, a senior official in Nigeria said. However, British officials worried the kidnappers would realize “the net was closing” on their location.
The rescue effort ends months of uncertainty about what happened to McManus and Lamolinara.
McManus was working for the construction company B.Stabilini when he was kidnapped May 12 by gunmen who stormed his apartment in the city of Birnin-Kebbi, about 110 miles away from Sokoto.
Lamolinara was also abducted. A German colleague managed to escape by scaling a wall, but a Nigerian engineer was shot and wounded.
A video later released showed the kidnappers claiming they belonged to Al Qaeda and threatening to kill McManus and Lamolinara if their demands were not met.
Britain’s Foreign Office has said two men were held by terrorists associated with Boko Haram, a radical Islamist sect in Nigeria blamed for more than 300 killings this year alone.
A senior British government official said the kidnappers appeared to be from an al-Qaida-linked cell within Boko Haram, but not within the group’s main faction.
Not typical attacks
However, the kidnappings represent a departure from the group’s typical attacks on government targets, Christians and public schools in Nigeria, a multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people.
Western diplomats and analysts say Boko Haram has had contacts with two other Al Qaeda-influenced terror groups in Africa and has splintered, with one wing increasingly ready to do violence.
In a conference call with journalists, a Boko Haram spokesman using the nom de guerre Abul Qaqa denied that his group was responsible for the kidnapping.
“We have always claimed responsibility for all the operations that we undertake, but we are not in any way responsible for the killing of the two foreigners,” the spokesman said in the Hausa language of Nigeria’s Muslim north. “It is not in our line of operation to take hostages.”
Despite Thursday’s violence, calm returned Friday to Sokoto. The imam made no special mention of the shootings during afternoon prayers at the city’s main mosque, attended by more than 1,000 people.
Outside the compound, the curious bent back the bottom of the front gate, allowing people to slip inside to look at the bullet holes and splattered blood.
Ahmad Muhammed, a 35-year-old neighbour, said he had never seen the people who lived at the compound. He recounted hiding with his wife and children as the gunfight raged, though he remained shocked the violence now sweeping Nigeria’s north had arrived to its quiet northwest corner.
“Look at how we are living,” Muhammed said. “Someone can just come and attack me. Nothing will happen. This is how we are living in Nigeria. Only God saves us.”
David Stringer reported from London. Associated Press writers Victor L. Simpson in Rome; Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria; Haruna Umar in Maiduguri, Nigeria; Jan Olsen in Copenhagen and Colleen Barry in Milan contributed to this report.