Defence Secretary Philip Hammond told the Commons the UK government moved to support Nigerian troops in the attempted rescue of Chris McManus and his Italian co-worker, Franco Lamolinara, after receiving credible information of their location and “imminent and escalating” threats to their lives.
In response, shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy endorsed the government’s decision to launch the raid last Thursday.
In a statement to MPs yesterday, Mr Hammond said Prime Minister David Cameron gave the go-ahead for British involvement in the assault on a house in the north-western town of Sokoto after a briefing by military and national security advisers.
He told MPs the operation lasted about 90 minutes but that the bodies of the two hostages were found by the troops in a room at the rear of the compound.
The Defence Secretary added: “The early indications are clear, both men were murdered by their captors with automatic gun fire before they could be rescued.”
Mr Hammond told MPs the Cobra emergency committee had met regularly during the ten-month captivity of Mr McManus and Mr Lamolinara to receive updates on the situation.
He said it continued to be the policy of the government not to pay ransoms to terrorist groups who take hostages.
Mr Hammond said it had become clear following the kidnap that it had been carried out by the terrorist group Boko Haram and clear demands had not been issued.
He told the Commons some direct contact was made with Mr McManus’s family.
In his statement, Mr Hammond said: “Where terrorists are involved in hostage taking, payment of ransoms is illegal under UK law.
“Over the course of Chris and Franco’s captivity, the government’s emergency committee Cobra met regularly to review progress and to discuss steps to secure their safe release. During their captivity the kidnappers made threats through a video and by direct contact with Chris’s family they were intending to kill Chris and Franco.
“But at no time during their captivity did the kidnappers make any coherent demands.”
Mr Hammond that said on a visit to Nigeria in July 2011, Mr Cameron had agreed a package of support from Britain for Nigeria’s counter-terrorism efforts with president Goodluck Jonathan.
Mr Hammond said: “As part of that package, a sustained operation was conducted to identify members of the group responsible for the kidnapping.
“Earlier last week, a number of them were apprehended and during de-briefing late on 7 March, credible intelligence was obtained identifying the probable location of the hostages at a house or compound in Sokoto, northern Nigeria.”
Mr Hammond said Foreign Secretary William Hague then briefed Mr Cameron that evening before chairing a Cobra meeting on the new information the following morning at 8:15. A further full briefing was then relayed to the Prime Minister.
The location was confirmed and the Nigerian military took up position and an assault group including UK support was put in place.
Following a further briefing, the Prime Minister gave authorisation to the rescue attempt, which began at 10:58am London time.
Mr Hammond told the Commons that early in the 90-minute operation, British forces killed one hostage taker. Three more were killed by Nigerian forces.