By Joshua Partlow and Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; A1
KABUL - An examination of video footage documenting a failed attempt to rescue a kidnapped British aid worker shows that she may have been accidentally killed by a grenade thrown by U.S. Special Operations troops involved in the raid, according to U.S. and British officials.
The new account of the death of Linda Norgrove, a 36-year-old British woman taken hostage in eastern Afghanistan last month, contradicted the initial assertion by officials in Kabul that one of her captors had detonated a bomb as the rescue team was closing in.
At a news conference in London after receiving a call from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Afghanistan, British Prime Minister David Cameron disclosed the possibility that U.S. forces had accidentally killed Norgrove.
The disclosure raised questions about whether the U.S. Special Operations forces made mistakes during the pre-dawn raid Friday, and it left unanswered why the military had so definitively asserted on Friday that Norgrove was killed by a Taliban bomb.
Several U.S. military officials in Afghanistan said they believed the new information only came to light Monday morning after commanders sorted through the details of a chaotic rescue attempt that left six insurgents dead, as well as Norgrove.
A commander of the Special Operations team, who watched video footage of the raid taken from an overhead surveillance drone, discovered what "looked to him like someone throwing a hand grenade into the area where Miss Norgrove was being held," said Navy Capt. Gary Kirchner, a NATO spokesman in Kabul.
"You've got a messy situation and it takes time to figure it out," said a U.S. military official in Kabul. "We thought the situation was something, and we realized it's something else."
The possibility that American forces killed Norgrove is troubling news for the British government, which is already confronting souring public opinion on the war and increasing pressure to pull out its troops, who make up the second-largest foreign contingent in Afghanistan, after the United States'. The incident has the potential to stiffen that opposition, particularly if officials are seen as having acted late in contradicting accounts that initially put the blame for the worker's death on her captors.
"If she died as a result of a grenade being thrown by her rescuers, then I think the situation is even more tragic and even more heartbreaking for her parents," Ewan Mackinnon, her former teacher, told BBC's "The World at One'' news show.
Military officials said they had moved swiftly to correct the record, in part because they were mindful of the case of Pat Tillman, the former professional football player and Army Ranger who was killed by "friendly fire" in 2004 in Afghanistan. Tillman's superiors initially claimed he had been killed by insurgents, and the subsequent coverup allegations tarnished the record of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who commanded Special Operations forces at the time, before he became the top American commander in Afghanistan.
"I have no problem with people making an error," said the U.S. military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But the concern here was clearly 'Hey, we've got to make sure we get the new information out as quickly as possible.' "
In light of the new account, Petraeus ordered an investigation of Norgrove's death, to be conducted by the U.S. Central Command in Tampa. Investigators will review the mission plan, interview the rescue team and examine the video footage and communications that took place during the operation, U.S. military officials said.
"We must get to the bottom of what happened, first of all so the family gets this information and knows exactly how their wonderful daughter died," Cameron said at a news conference at No. 10 Downing Street.
Cameron strongly defended the mission itself, saying it had been agreed upon after intense consideration and exchanges between British and American officials.
"The decision to launch this rescue operation was not an easy one," Cameron said. "But I am clear that Linda's life was in grave danger from the moment she was taken."
Norgrove, who had spent several years in Afghanistan, was a respected aid worker for DAI, a Bethesda-based contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Based in the eastern city of Jalalabad and working with a staff of about 200 Afghans, Norgrove was the regional director for a $150 million development project that involved building roads and bridges and improving agriculture.
She was kidnapped Sept. 26 while traveling through a relatively remote area of Konar province with three Afghan colleagues to visit an irrigation project. She had been driving in an unarmored car without a security guard, and was accosted on the road by men in Afghan Army uniforms.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the men turned out to be Salafists, who take an extremely conservative view of Islam and are allied with the local Taliban groups in Konar. Worried that Norgrove would be passed to other insurgent factions in more inaccessible locations in Pakistan, Hague said he authorized a rescue attempt given the right circumstances.
In the meantime, coalition troops accelerated efforts to box in the kidnappers, while aircraft dropped leaflets offering reward money to villagers for information on her whereabouts. By Oct. 2, Norgrove's Afghan colleagues were released, but Hague said the kidnappers never seriously offered to negotiate over her fate.
"A rescue operation was the only realistic hope for Linda's safe and secure release," Hague said. "We did all in our power to rescue Linda from the appalling circumstances in which she found herself."
Norgrove grew up on the Isle of Lewis off the west coast of Scotland, the daughter of parents who frequently traveled to developing countries. She graduated from the University of Aberdeen with a degree in tropical environmental science, and later worked in Mexico and Peru, before moving to Afghanistan in 2005.
She was regarded by colleagues in Afghanistan as compassionate and adventurous, with a deep understanding of local culture. She became fluent in Dari and was learning Pashto, the two most commonly spoken languages here.
U.S. military officials in Kabul said they saw her death as a tragic end to a treacherous and necessary rescue attempt.
"It's unfortunate," said a U.S. military official in Kabul. "But I still think what these guys did was heroic."
Faiola reported from Sweden. Special correspondent Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi in London contributed to this report.