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By John Helmer, Moscow

Imagine that Russian spetznaz troops were helicoptered into a foreign country, opening fire on a hideout in which Russian citizens were being held hostage by heavily-armed bad guys demanding a ransom for their captives. And suppose the outcome of the firefight was the deaths of the hostages. One can be sure the Anglo-American media would headline the operation as a botch-up demonstrating the incompetence of the Russian military, the Russian lack of respect for the human rights of its citizens, and the ruthlessness of President-elect Vladimir Putin for giving the foolhardy order to fire.

“The beginning of the end of Putin” would be the sub-text, just as The Economist has front-covered its reporting of Russia this week, while its sister publication, The Financial Times, tries to talk down Putin’s election majority, talk up Russian risk in the markets, and ignore the contrary evidence of the RTS index — up 24% since the start of the year; down 4.3% after election day, and up again by 2.2% yesterday. As a Moscow-based reporter of a US paper of record complains, his bureau has been under orders from headquarters to keep up the anti-Putin drum-beat to the exclusion of other news.

In truth, Russian special forces didn’t attack a compound in a northern Nigerian town, but the British did. That was on Thursday last, March 8.

A large number of people died, including the hostages, one British, one Italian. The operation was more than a fatal botch-up. The Italian government has announced publicly it did not know in advance of the military operation, and approved a ransom solution, not a military one. Easy for the Italians to claim with hindsight, especially since it’s not clear if Rome issued an explicit no-attack, no-fire order. But London is unapologetic, at least towards Rome.

The reports appearing in the Italian, Nigerian and then British media over the weekend claim Rome had agreed to pay a larger ransom than London, which cut the price down from €5 million to €1.2 million, including a deposit, followed by a phased release. The British Special Boat Service (SBS) reportedly used the deposit handover to follow the bad guys back to their hideout, where the SBS, with Nigerian backup, started their operation. It has been reported in Corriere della Sera that once they knew they were surrounded, the kidnappers asked for safe passage, leaving the hostages behind alive; this request was reportedly turned down in London, and countered with the British demand for unconditional surrender. That then led to the conclusion on the part of the kidnappers that they should dispose of the evidence against them, so they shot the hostages.

The hostage-taking occurred on May 12, 2011. So ten months have elapsed in which to identify the bad guys, locate their hideout, determine their price, plot the options, weigh the alternatives. The British cover-up has made it appear the bad guys were Islamic fundamentalists. Nigerian evidence suggests this was a commercial kidnapping, which is common in that country, often with complicity of and ransom-sharing with local, regional or federal Nigerian officials, military officers and the like. “We have always claimed responsibility for all the operations that we undertake, but we are not in any way responsible for the killing of the two foreigners,” the spokesman for the local Islamic fundamentalist organization has said. “It is not in our line of operation to take hostages.”

The cost of the British operation, including the final military failure, is several multiples greater than the discount ransom, and almost certainly more expensive than the original ransom. So much for the price London puts on the lives of its citizens.

There is a much longer story about how Moscow behaved during the 26-month captivity of Russian citizens in Nigeria between October 2003 and December 2005. The bottom-line of that one is that Moscow waited for much longer, paid a far higher ransom price, and recovered all the hostages alive and well. What isn’t well-known is that the Kremlin carefully plotted a military rescue operation, but concluded the risk of hostage casualties was too great to proceed. Also, the Nigerian Government was punished at the highest level for its involvement in the affair. Here’s a resume of that story.

The African Pride was a Greek-owned, Panamanian-flagged tanker which was caught smuggling crude oil from Nigeria in October of 2003. The contraband scheme was an elaborate one at the supply end, involving high-ranking Nigerian naval officers ashore and at sea, as well as an international oil trader of repute, who was the purchaser of the cargo once the tanker made port elsewhere. Several vessels were involved, with about 30,000 barrels of crude going out the backdoor every day. The African Pride was crewed by 12 Russian mariners, and one Georgian. When their vessel was apprehended by Nigerian police, it was loaded with 11,400 tonnes of oil. The crew was taken ashore under arrest. In time, however, the tanker, its officers and its cargo proceeded to make good their escape.

For two years the crew was held in a Lagos prison without trial. During that time, the Kremlin paid Russian lawyers and more than one special emissary to negotiate the release with the Nigerian authorities. On one occasion, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov delivered a personal demand to the Nigerian Ambassador in Moscow, as well as to a powerful Nigerian intelligence officer. In the final deal approved by the Kremlin, the Nigerians agreed to charge and try the crew for smuggling offences; convict them and sentence them to time served; and for the final three months, September to December 2005, while the Nigerians organized their show trial, the mariners were released on bail to live in the Russian embassy compound in Lagos. At the end of December they were convicted, released, and flown home.

It helped that the Nigerian Government at the time wanted to take a seat on the United Nations Security Council and needed to get Russia to lift its veto on everything Nigerian. There was also competition for the same seat, and for Russia’s favour, from South Africa. A great deal of money – roughly four times last week’s ransom — was at stake and discreetly on the table in these many-sided negotiations. How to pay it, and make sure the Nigerians stuck to the release terms, also took time and care on the Russian side. Although never acknowledged officially, the ransom or bribe was concealed within at least one, possibly two oil exploration concessions awarded by the Nigerian government to Russian oil companies, Zarubezhneft and LUKoil.

A source who was involved in the negotiations for release of the hostages has described in detail the military option, which was drawn up and discussed in Moscow during 2005. He says that a spetznaz operation would have involved a helicopter attack on the prison in Lagos, where the hostages were being held. There were multiple objectives – create a diversion to draw the Nigerian guards away from their Russian prisoners; blast a path into the cellblock where they were held; and shoot their way out on to the rescue helicopters. Non-military means to lull the Nigerians were also anticipated.

The problem acknowledged in the Kremlin was that the risk remained incalculably high that the Nigerians would kill the Russians as soon as the attack started, or use them as shields and see them dead in the crossfire. The Russians were also certain the Nigerians could not be trusted to honour their side of a release bargain, whether reinforced by bribes or not. In short, Moscow decided the risk of a fatal outcome for their citizens remained too high to justify the military option.

So the ransom was paid, and eventually everyone survived. Hostage-taking and kidnapping for ransom of Russian citizens continued in Nigeria (notably of six Russian employees of United Company Rusal’s aluminium smelter south of Port Harcourt in mid-2007). There have also been hostage-taking episodes involving Russian ships and seamen in Guinea and Benin. The Kremlin doesn’t invariably pay pirates and kidnappers, but in West Africa always. Let’s hear the Economist roar its disapproval of that.

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