The New York Times this morning expressed its deep gratitude to IrishCentral, which broke the story of the kidnapping of Times journalist Stephen Farrell by Taliban terrorists at at 2:15 p.m. EST Saturday, and then withdrew the story from its Web site, content partners and news feeds after the Times requested it in the interest of the reporter's life and safety.
In a series of emails and conversations with IrishCentral, The Times had expressed its grave concern that any publicity could jeopardize Farrell's life, as well as that of his translator and colleague Sultan Munadi, who had also been abducted in the vicinity of Kunduz in Afghanistan.
"We are deeply grateful to you for honoring our request to refrain from reporting the kidnapping," The Times' Diane McNulty said to IrishCentral as word came that Farrell was in safe hands.
IrishCentral Publisher Niall O'Dowd, who ordered the story's removal after being contacted by IrishCentral editors, expressed his relief that Farrell had survived.
"Our prayers for Stephen's safety and rescue were expressed immediately to the Times when they first called," O'Dowd said, "and we are happy that our decision to pull the story and work with our other news partners to withdraw it may have helped in some small way to save his life. That's the best story we could have."
Farrell, who has been kidnapped once before in the war-torn region, was freed in a covert commando operation early this morning. Tragically, Mundai was killed in the operation, as was a British soldier. The Times reported today that an Afghan journalist who spoke to villagers in the area said that civilians were also killed in the firefight to free the journalists. But details of the operation itself were sketchy.
The Times confirmed information from IrishCentral's sources that Farrell held dual Irish and British citizenship.
The newspaper described the dramatic events in a story published on its website:
"Farrell and Mr. Munadi were abducted on Saturday while they were reporting on NATO airstrikes on Friday that exploded two fuel tankers hijacked by Taliban militants. Afghan officials have said up to 90 people, including many civilians, were killed in the attack, which NATO officials are now investigating.
"In a brief telephone call about 7:30 p.m. New York time on Tuesday, Farrell told Susan Chira, the foreign editor of The Times: 'I’m out! I’m free!'
"Chira said Farrell told her that he had been 'extracted' by a commando raid carried out by 'a lot of soldiers' in a fierce firefight with his captors. Farrell said he had also called his wife.
"Farrell, 46, joined The Times in July 2007 as a correspondent in the Baghdad bureau. He has spent many years covering the struggles of the Afghan and Iraqi people and built a respected reputation for his reporting on the Middle East and South Asia.
"Munadi had worked regularly with The Times and other news organizations.
"In a second phone call to a New York Times reporter in Kabul, Farrell gave this account of what happened when he and his captors heard the thump-thumping of approaching helicopters.
"'We were all in a room, the Talibs all ran, it was obviously a raid,' Farrell said. “We thought they would kill us. We thought should we go out.'
"Farrell said as he and Munadi ran outside, he heard voices. 'There were bullets all around us. I could hear British and Afghan voices.'
"At the end of a wall, Farrell said Munadi went forward, shouting: 'Journalist! Journalist!' but dropped in a hail of bullets. 'I dived in a ditch,' said Farrell, who said he did not know whether the shots had come from allied or militant fire.
"After a minute or two, Farrell said he heard more British voices and shouted, 'British hostage!' The British voices told him to come over. As he did, Mr. Farrell said he saw Munadi.
"'He was lying in the same position as he fell,' Farrell said. 'That’s all I know. I saw him go down in front of me. He did not move. He’s dead. He was so close, he was just two feet in front of me when he dropped.'
"Mr. Farrell told the Times colleague that he was unhurt.
"Neither The Times nor Farrell’s family knew that the military operation was taking place.
"Until now, the kidnapping had been kept quiet by The Times and most other news media organizations out of concern for the men’s safety.
"'We feared that media attention would raise the temperature and increase the risk to the captives,' said Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times. 'We’re overjoyed that Steve is free, but deeply saddened that his freedom came at such a cost. We are doing all we can to learn the details of what happened. Our hearts go out to Sultan’s family."
Farrell's rescue came about 11 weeks after David Rohde, another reporter for The Times, escaped and made his way to freedom after more than seven months of captivity in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In that case as well, The Times and other news organizations kept Rohde’s kidnapping silent out of fear for his safety.