KABUL, Afghanistan : At first, NATO blamed a Taliban bomb for the death of a captive British aid worker during an American rescue attempt in eastern Afghanistan. Two days later, the coalition changed its account, saying Monday that U.S. forces may have detonated a grenade that killed Linda Norgrove during the operation to free her.
British Prime Minister David Cameron defended Friday's rescue mission, saying his government authorized it only after learning that Norgrove's life was in grave danger. The U.S. military, which carried out the raid because the aid worker was being held in a region under American command, said it would investigate the incident with British cooperation.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen emphasized that "whatever happened, I would like to stress that those who are responsible of course are the captors."
The U.S.-led NATO force has historically been slow to acknowledge friendly fire deaths in Afghanistan. Drawn-out investigations mean findings can come weeks or months after an incident. But an increased focus on preventing civilian deaths has led NATO over the past year to push for quicker reporting on mistakes.
Norgrove, 36, from Scotland's Isle of Lewis, worked on a U.S.-funded aid project for Development Alternatives Inc., a Bethesda, Maryland-based organization. She was abducted in an ambush on Sept. 26 while driving toward Asadabad, the capital of Kunar province, according to Afghan officials. She was to oversee projects in the area.
Three Afghan colleagues were also captured in the ambush but all were later released. Norgrove died Friday night _ nearly two weeks after being captured _ when U.S. special forces stormed the Taliban compound where she was being held in Kunar province. In its initial statement Saturday, NATO said Norgrove was killed when captors detonated a bomb during the attack.
But then the rescue mission leader saw surveillance footage of the incident, had discussions with other team members and decided "it was not conclusive what the cause of her death was," said Lt. Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman at NATO headquarters in Kabul. When the rescue team assaulted the Taliban hide-out, they came under fire from within the compound as well as from an overwatch position nearby, Dorrian said Monday.
All six gunmen who fought back against the U.S. force were killed, along with Norgrove. He said women and children in the compound were not hurt and that no one on the U.S. rescue team was wounded Dorrian did not provide details on how long the fighting lasted, the size of the force or what weaponry they used.
In London, Cameron said that the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, informed him that Norgrove was possibly killed by a grenade detonated by a member of the rescue team.
Cameron office said he spoke by telephone with President Barack Obama, who expressed his condolences. The White House confirmed the call, adding that Cameron and Obama "agreed that it was now essential to get to the bottom of what had happened in the course of the rescue operation." Cameron said he told Norgrove's family of the "deeply distressing development," and defended the decision to attempt the risky rescue mission.
"We were clear that Linda's life was in grave danger and the operation offered the best chance of saving her life," Cameron told reporters at a news conference at 10 Downing St. Norgrove's father, John, said the family had no comment.
Foreign Secretary William Hague, who approved the rescue mission with Cameron's support, told the House of Commons that Norgrove's captors intended to "pass her further up the Taliban command chain."
Norgrove had worked in Afghanistan for years on various aid projects, spoke the language and was "dedicated to Afghanistan," according to a statement released by her employer. Her projects mainly involved working with farmers or on environmental protection programs. She had donned a burqa _ a body-covering robe worn by many Afghan women _ for the trip during which she was kidnapped, local police said.
It was the second attempted rescue of an abducted Briton in about a year to end in bloodshed. In September 2009, New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell and Sultan Munadi, an Afghan journalist and interpreter, were taken hostage when they went to cover the aftermath of a NATO airstrike that killed scores of civilians in northern Afghanistan.
Munadi and a British commando died in the raid that rescued Farrell, a Briton. British forces said they had to leave Munadi's body behind because they were under such heavy fire. AP