REPORTING FROM LONDON AND ROME -- A day after two Western hostages were killed by suspected terrorists in Nigeria before a military raid could free them, British and Italian officials traded barbs Friday over who knew what and when regarding the failed mission.
The Italian government says it was informed of the joint Nigerian-British rescue attempt only after it was underway. Hours later, a somber British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the operation had not succeeded and that the two hostages, Briton Chris McManus and Italian Franco Lamolinara, had been killed by their kidnappers.
Rome said it had kept in close contact with London about the two men but had received no warning when the raid was launched. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said it was "inexplicable" that British officials had not "contacted and consulted with Italy about undertaking an action of force."
But Philip Hammond, the British defense secretary, shot back that there was nothing inexplicable about what happened.
"The Italian government was kept informed throughout the operation as the intelligence emerged and then as the decision was taken to act. The Italian authorities were involved," he told the BBC. "I don't think they specifically approved it. [But] they were informed of what was happening."
Hammond said the decision to move in was based on intelligence that McManus and Lamolinara "were about to be moved, possibly executed."
"When a window of opportunity became available, a well-trained Nigerian force with British support went in and tried to rescue them," Hammond said. "That was the right thing to do in our judgment."
How the two hostages died remains unclear. Cameron said they were killed by their captors before they could be rescued, but a Nigerian official speaking anonymously to the Associated Press said Thursday that the men were killed in the crossfire.
McManus and Lamolinara worked for an Italian construction firm with contracts in Nigeria. They were kidnapped in the northwest part of the country last May, reportedly by an Islamic militant group known as Boko Haram, some of whose members are suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda.
Massimo D’Alema, head of the parliamentary committee that oversees Italy's secret services, said it was "unacceptable" that Italy had not been informed in advance of the rescue mission. His panel is to convene a hearing with top intelligence officials Monday.
Italy's Democratic Party has demanded that government ministers appear before Parliament to explain the situation, while other politicians complained that it seemed as though other countries did not take Italy seriously.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti met Friday morning at length with the defense, foreign and interior ministers and with the heads of the secret services to discuss the situation.
Footage broadcast by Sky News of the kidnappers’ compound showed evidence of a fierce shootout, with scores of bullet holes riddling the walls.
"There will be, obviously, an analysis of the chain of events that led to the attempted rescue, and we will try to learn" from it, Hammond said. "It was always going to be something that had significant risk attached to it."
-- Henry Chu in London and Sarah Delaney in Rome
Photo: The bullet-ridden wall of the house in Mabera, Nigeria, where two foreign nationals, a Briton and Italian, were killed Thursday during a failed rescue attempt. Credit: EPA / STR