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Kidnapped Reporter Rescued in Afghanistan

Updated at 12:02 p.m. Eastern.

British commandos freed a New York Times reporter early Wednesday from Taliban captives who kidnapped him over the weekend in northern Afghanistan, but one of the commandos and a Times' translator were killed in the rescue, officials said.

Reporter Stephen Farrell was taken hostage along with his translator in the northern province of Kunduz on Saturday. German commanders had ordered U.S. jets to drop bombs on two hijacked fuel tankers, causing a number of civilian casualties, and reporters traveled to the area to cover the story.

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One British service member died during the raid, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, while the Times reported that Farrell's Afghan translator, Sultan Munadi, 34, also was killed. Brown said "we send his family our condolences." Farrell was unhurt.

Gunfire rang out from multiple sides during the rescue, and a Taliban commander who was in the house was killed, along with the owner of the house and a woman, said Mohammad Sami Yowar, a spokesman for the Kunduz governor.

Munadi was killed in the midst of the firefight, he said. A British defense official said he couldn't rule out the possibility he was killed by British gunfire.

Afghan officials over the weekend said about 70 people died when U.S. jets dropped two bombs on the tankers, igniting them in a massive explosion. There were reports that villagers who had come to collect fuel from the tankers were among the dead, and Farrell wanted to interview villagers.

The Times reported that while Farrell and Munadi were talking to Afghans near the site of the bombing, an old man approached them and warned them to leave. Soon after, gunshots rang out and people shouted that the Taliban were approaching.

Police had warned reporters who traveled to the capital of Kunduz to cover the tanker strike that the village in question was controlled by the Taliban, and it would be dangerous to go there.

The Times kept the kidnappings quiet out of concern for the men's safety, and other media outlets, including The Associated Press, did not report the abductions following a request from the Times.

A story posted on the Times' Web site quoted Farrell saying he had been "extracted" by a commando raid carried out by "a lot of soldiers" in a firefight.

Mohammad Sami Yowar, a spokesman for the Kunduz governor, said British Special Forces dropped down from helicopters early Wednesday onto the house where the two were being kept, and a gun battle ensued.

A Taliban commander who was in the house was killed, along with the owner of the house and a woman who was inside, Yowar said. He said Sultan was killed in the midst of the firefight.

Contradicting Yowar's claim, a Taliban commander from Kunduz province told CBS News' Sami Yousafzai Wednesday morning in a phone call that no militants were killed in the firefight. He said the battle took place at a civilian house being used by the Taliban, but that all militants fled the scene safely.

The militant, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, claimed one Afghan civilian was killed and another injured in the firefight.

"A woman of the house was killed and another injured in the shooting. The Taliban left the house without losing any fighters," he said, adding, "we are sorry for the death of the Afghan in the shootout."

The militant commander's claims could not be independently verified, but Taliban claims are often exaggerated.

Farrell, a dual Irish-British citizen, told the Times that he saw Munadi step forward shouting "Journalist! Journalist!" but he then fell in a volley of bullets. Farrell said he did not know if the shots came from militants or the rescuing forces.

"I dived in a ditch," said Farrell. Moments later, he said he heard British voices and shouted, "British hostage!" The British voices told him to come over. As he did, Farrell said he saw Munadi.

"He was lying in the same position as he fell," Farrell told the Times. "That's all I know. I saw him go down in front of me. He did not move. He's dead. He was so close, he was just two feet in front of me when he dropped."

Munadi, in his early 30s, was employed by The New York Times starting in 2002, according to his colleagues. He left the company a few years later to work for a local radio station.

He left Afghanistan last year to study for a master's degree in Germany. He came back to Kabul last month for a holiday and to see his family, and agreed to accompany Farrell to Kunduz on a freelance basis. He was married and had two young sons.

U.S. military spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker confirmed the operation by NATO and Afghan forces, but did not provide further details.

Farrell, 46, joined the Times in 2007 in Baghdad. He has covered both the Afghan and Iraq conflicts for the paper. He told the paper that he was not hurt in the rescue operation.

New York Times executive editor Bill Keller said he had understood from the military that they did not intend to conduct a raid unless the situation turned "particularly menacing, and they had actionable intelligence and a high probability of success."

Keller said he doesn't know what triggered the decision to carry out the raid, but that Farrell told him the situation had turned "menacing." Keller said it was possible the militants may have planned to move the hostages and said he would not second guess the military's decision to take action.

The British prime minister said the operation was carried out after "extensive planning and consideration" and that those involved knew the high risks they faced. Brown called the mission "breathtaking heroism."

"As we all know, and as last night once again demonstrated, our armed forces have the skill and courage to act. They are truly the finest among us, and all of us in Britain pay tribute to them, and to the families and communities who sustain them in their awesome responsibilities," Brown said.

Farrell was the second Times journalist to be kidnapped in Afghanistan in a year.

In June, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Rohde and his Afghan colleague Tahir Ludin in northwestern Pakistan. They had been abducted Nov. 10 south of the Afghan capital of Kabul and were moved across the border.

Several Western reporters have been kidnapped in Afghanistan in the last several years, mostly while traveling in dangerous districts but also in and around Kabul. Kidnappings by the Taliban are often for ideological reasons, though kidnappings by criminals are done for ransom payments. Afghan businessmen in Kabul have been frequently targeted by criminal kidnappers during the last few years.

At least 16 Afghan and foreign journalists have been kidnapped in Afghanistan since January 2002, according to Reporters Without Borders.

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