Mr Speaker, it is with great sadness that I make this statement about the tragic death of Linda Norgrove, the British aid worker taken hostage in Afghanistan, who died during the course of a rescue attempt by US Forces on the night of 8th October.
Linda was working for the NGO Development Alternatives Incorporated when she was kidnapped along with three Afghan colleagues by insurgents dressed in Afghan National Army uniforms, as she travelled by car on 26th September in Kunar province in North East Afghanistan.
Immediately following her disappearance a crisis management team began work at our Embassy in Kabul, and the Commander of ISAF Forces in Afghanistan General Petraeus was informed, along with the Afghan Government’s National Security Adviser. In London COBR was immediately convened. Intensive efforts to locate Linda began. Leaflet drops were carried out, offering a reward for information about Linda. Forces in the area began an increased tempo of operations in and around the area where she was captured, designed to limit the room for manoeuvre of the hostage takers.
Our objective throughout was clear: to secure Linda’s Norgrove’s safe release while continuing the longstanding policy of successive British Governments not to make concessions to hostage takers.
From the very start COBR assessed that Linda’s life was in grave danger, which is why I authorised from the beginning a rescue attempt to be made in the right circumstances.
Linda’s captors were assessed to be representatives of a local Salafist group allied to the local Kunar Taliban, who had links higher up the Taliban chain of command, to Al Qaeda, and to other insurgent groups operating in the Afghan and Pakistan border areas.
We had information from the outset that the objective of Linda’s captors was to pass her further up the Taliban command chain and perhaps move her to yet more inaccessible terrain.
On the basis of the information available to us, we were in no doubt whatsoever that there was a continual and real threat to her life and no credible option for a negotiated release.
Linda’s Afghan colleagues were released on the 2nd October, but at no stage was any serious attempt made to negotiate by those holding her. Afghan media reports purporting to convey demands by her captors, including the complete withdrawal of all UK forces from Afghanistan, were not judged to be credible. Nothing that happened between 26th of September and 8th October caused me or anyone else involved to change our view that a rescue operation was the only realistic hope for Linda’s safe and secure release.
Linda Norgrove was captured in the US area of operations in Afghanistan. We agreed at the outset that this operation would be US-led. The US have had forces in Kunar since 2006 and have excellent knowledge of the region. US Special Forces were therefore held on 30 minute standby to mount a release effort from the day Linda was captured. In the early days of her captivity bad weather and storms in the region hindered attempts to get detailed information about her exact location, meaning that a rescue attempt was not possible in those early days.
After intense efforts by the UK and our allies to prepare for a rescue, US Special Forces attempted to rescue Linda on the night of 8th October. In the operation that followed these Special Forces succeeded in reaching the right location and in shielding ten women and children from the fighting that ensued. However tragically the operation still was not successful, since we did not succeed in saving Linda’s life.
Every indication we had over the weekend suggested that Linda had been killed by the explosion of a suicide vest worn by one of her captors. Early this morning General Petraeus contacted the Prime Minister’s office to say that in the review of the rescue operation, new information had come to light about the circumstances surrounding her death. The review and subsequent interviews with the personnel involved indicate that Linda may not have died at the hands of her captors as originally believed, but may have died as the result of a grenade detonated by the taskforce during the assault.
All such rescue operations involve a measure of risk which has to be weighed against a constant risk to the hostage and a risk that such an opportunity to undertake a rescue operation may not occur.
I wish to pay tribute to the US forces in Afghanistan who risked their own lives to try to rescue a British citizen. We should also remember that the responsibility for the loss of Linda’s life lies with those who took her hostage.
The Prime Minister and I are utterly determined to do everything we possibly can to establish the full facts and to give Linda’s parents a full account of the tragic circumstances in which their daughter died.
General Petraeus has personally assured the Prime Minister that ISAF will carry out a full investigation into what happened. The United Kingdom will be fully involved and the House will be informed of its outcome.
Mr Speaker, the taking of hostages and the targeting of civilians, including aid workers, is under any circumstances morally indefensible We did all in our power to rescue Linda from the appalling circumstances in which she found herself She was a dedicated professional doing a job she loved in a country she loved, helping a people who have borne the brunt of conflict and poverty for decades.
For Linda’s family this will be the most painful loss it is possible to endure. Our thoughts are with them as they come to terms with the death of their daughter. The whole House will be united in sorrow for them.