A diplomatic row between Italy and Britain was escalating on Friday following the failed mission to rescue two hostages in Nigeria. Italian officials, including the country’s president, have said that it is inexplicable that Britain did not inform its European partner before launching the attempt to free the two construction workers, one British, one Italian.
Italy’s foreign minister, Giulio Terzi, asked Britain to provide the “utmost clarity” around the events, and demanded details “in the next few hours”, an Italian news agency said. William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said that the limited time available to make a decision “constrained how much we were able to consult others”.
But Downing Street has insisted that a possible rescue attempt had been raised with the Italian government beforehand and no objections were raised.
Chris McManus, 28, from Oldham, Greater Manchester, and Franco Lamolinara died during the rescue attempt by UK special forces and the Nigerian military on Thursday after being held for nine months by an Islamist gang. They were kidnapped by a faction of the militant Islamist sect Boko Haram.
The Italian and British governments tried to play down tensions on Friday in a joint statement issued after a meeting between Hague and Terzi. Hague had “made clear that there had been a limited opportunity to secure the release of the two hostages, whose lives were in imminent and growing danger”, they said. The statement added: “Under these circumstances it was only possible to inform Italy once the operation was under way.
“Mr Terzi expressed deep sorrow and disappointment over the tragic outcome of the operation and both ministers agreed on the urgency of sharing full information to facilitate the reconstruction and understanding of these events.
“Both ministers conveyed their solidarity and sympathy for the families of Chris McManus and Franco Lamolinara.”
Nigerian and British forces are reported to have fought for at least an hour in daylight after capturing a gang member who told them the hostages were being held in a disused house in Sokoto, north-west Nigeria.
British government officials in Nigeria then asked for immediate permission to launch a raid because of fears that the hostage-takers had discovered that their whereabouts were known to the authorities, sources said.
British special forces mounted the rescue attempt as soon as intelligence revealed where the two hostages were being held and – crucially – that the hostages were about to be moved, senior Whitehall officials briefed on the operation said on Friday night. “It was not a matter of if they were going to be killed, but when,” said one official, reflecting a unapologetic mood within Whitehall about the decision.
This view explained the reference to the “window of opportunity” – a phrase that has become a mantra among ministers.
British officials strongly defended the rescue attempt, adding that there was always going to be a risk. Certainly there was little sympathy in Whitehall circles on Friday night with the Italian protests.
Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, said: “All the intelligence was that the [hostages] were about to be moved and possibly executed.” Referring to the SBS troops engaged in the operation, he added: ” The best chance of saving the hostages’ lives was to act when they did act.”
Nevertheless, British and Nigerian intelligence agencies and special forces are under pressure to explain exactly what went wrong and why – not least to the angry Italians. In the UK, senior ministers will be demanding a full debrief of the incident.
In Italy, politicians have focused on the British decision not to tell the Italians on Thursday about the rescue attempt until after it had begun.
The Italian president, Giorgio Napolitano, said it was “inexplicable” that the UK had not informed his government before launching the rescue attempt.
“I want a political and diplomatic explanation,” he said.
Italian diplomat Antonio Puri Purini said the events had been an “unacceptable slap in the face” for his countrymen.
Hammond had earlier told the BBC: “They were informed. I don’t think they specifically approved it, but they were informed of what was happening.”
The prime minister’s spokesman confirmed that the Italian government had been told by UK officials of the rescue attempt after it had been launched. After the bodies of the two men were found, Cameron then called Italy’s prime minister Mario Monti.
But the spokesman added that the possibility of a future raid had been raised in previous discussions with the Italian government and that no objection had been voiced.
“We have had lots of contacts with the Italians over the last nine months and a rescue operation was one possible option,” he said. There was no objection to this possibility, he added.
There was no time to ask the Italians for their input because of the risk that the hostage-takers might learn that their location was known to the authorities, he added.
Cameron said he had offered no apology to Monti. “Our assessment of the situation has not changed since yesterday,” he said. “Early indications are that both men were murdered by their captors before they could be rescued.”
There have been around 20 meetings of Cobra, the cabinet committee that considers hostage situations, to discuss the men’s plight.
Nigerian and British government officials have been monitoring the situation since the two men, construction workers, were taken by a faction of the militant Islamist sect Boko Haram last May. The group claims to have links with al-Qaida’s north African wing, a senior official at Nigeria’s State Security Service said.
Boko Haram, which is based in the north and styles itself on the Taliban, is waging a low-level insurgency against the southern-dominated government, proving a growing security headache for President Goodluck Jonathan.
The group has been blamed for almost daily shootings and bombings that have killed hundreds of people in the past two years.
An emergency meeting of Italy’s parliamentary oversight committee for the secret services was under way on Friday morning to consider Britain’s decision to keep Italy in the dark about the raid.
However, the two governments continue to work together to bring back the bodies of the two men, a spokesman said.
The house where McManus and Lamolinara were found was splattered with blood on Friday. The two men had been working on a bank construction project in the city before they were kidnapped last May. Prescription drugs, including penicillin, anti-malarial tablets and toiletries, were scattered over the floor of the house, suggesting the men suggested they had been there for some time. Three people were arrested in the raid, according to reports.
British officials declined to comment on reports that the Nigerian forces used an armoured personnel carrier to storm the building.