A 36-year-old Scottish aid worker kidnapped two weeks ago in one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan might have been killed by the American special operations team sent to rescue her -- and not by her captors, as the U.S. military initially said.
Linda Norgrove, a woman who had spent much of her life helping the poor, was being held in the remote province of Kunar when the British government authorized a rescue mission, according to British officials in London and Western officials in Kabul.
But the mission went horribly wrong when an explosion severely wounded Norgrove and, according to two Western officials, a medic at the scene was unable to revive her.
Over the weekend, U.S. officials gave specific details about how a suicide bomber blew himself up next to Norgrove as the rescue team closed in. But today the U.S. changed its story. Two Western officials say after reviewing footage of the raid filmed from the air -- either by a drone or a satellite -- and interviewing members of the team, it became clear that a grenade thrown by one of the American forces might have caused the explosion that killed her.
"The decision to launch this rescue operation was not an easy one," British Prime Minister David Cameron said in London today, announcing an investigation that will examine exactly what caused Norgrove's death. "I'm clear that the best chance of saving Linda's life was to go ahead, recognizing that any operation was fraught with risk for all those involved and success could by no means be guaranteed."
Today, clearly stung by being proven wrong about the suicide bomber, Western officials in Kabul tried emphasize how difficult the mission was.
Norgrove was being held in a house owned by Mullah Kiftan, a local Taliban commander in a district of Kunar province named after himself, according to local officials. The house was on a "precipice" 8,000 feet high, making landing in the area with a helicopter extremely difficult, according to three Western officials. The special operations forces team flew to the site on a night with no moon and "quick roped" down to the ground, immediately getting into a large and lengthy firefight, during which at least nine militants were killed.
At some point, there was an explosion near Norgrove. U.S. officials say they still have not confirmed the cause of death -- whether from a fragmentation grenade thrown by a member of the rescue team, or from an insurgent bomb somehow triggered by the thrown grenade.
But the shift of blame to American special operations forces sparked new doubts in London and Kabul about whether the raid should have been launched in the first place.
U.S. officials say they launched the raid for two reasons: they were worried Norgrove would be taken to Pakistan, where the U.S. military does not openly operate, and that there was a "very real, direct threat that they would kill her," according to one Western official in Kabul.
And local officials say they also believed insurgents intended to take Norgrove across the border -- and were not going to negotiate until they did so.
The house where she was being held is only about two dozen miles from Pakistan. Intelligence officials had enough information to surround the area, according to three western officials, essentially restricting the militants' movement.