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BRITISH RAID TO FREE REPORTER KILLS SOLDIER, AFGHAN AIDE

Britain ordered a predawn commando raid in northern Afghanistan on Wednesday to rescue a British reporter for the New York Times and his Afghan interpreter after Afghan agents learned that the Taliban was planning to move the hostages into Pakistan, a senior Afghan official said Wednesday.

The raid by British special operations and Afghan soldiers freed the reporter, Stephen Farrell, but the interpreter, Sultan Munadi and a British paratrooper were killed in a fierce firefight, as were at least one Afghan civilian and dozens of Taliban fighters, officials said.

A senior Afghan official and Farrell described a situation where after two days in captivity, the hostages' situation turned more menacing. They said it seemed likely that Taliban leaders from outside the immediate district in Kunduz province were planning to move the captives across the border into neighboring Pakistan.

While Farrell said he was treated well - given food, water, blankets and never harmed - the militants increasingly taunted Munadi. At one point one of the Taliban reminded Munadi of a case two years ago in which an Italian journalist taken hostage in Helmand province was freed while his Afghan translator was beheaded.

"I did not think they were going to kill me," Farrell said Wednesday in a telephone interview from the British Embassy in Kabul. "I did think they were going to kill him."

The Taliban captors talked freely on their telephones, increasing the chances that NATO eavesdroppers also picked up on the change in mood and believed time was running short to act. A senior American military official in Washington said that the United States provided intelligence assistance and had helicopters and attack aircraft at the ready but that the operation was planned and carried out by British commanders and civilian officials.

On Wednesday, Farrell blamed himself for Munadi's death, though he says the two of them discussed while in captivity the possibility that they might not survive.

Farrell said of his colleague, "He was trying to protect me up to the last minute." During the commando siege, "he moved out in front of me."

"He was three seconds away from safety," Farrell said. "I thought we were safe. He just walked into a hail of bullets."

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Developments

U.N. conference: British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon on Wednesday calling for a new international conference on Afghanistan by year-end to discuss the aftermath of the country's elections.

Election praise: A day after preliminary results gave him more than 50 percent of the vote in the Aug. 20 election, Afghan President Hamid Karzai stressed his support for Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission on Wednesday as international trust in the group appeared to erode over allegations of widespread fraud in last month's presidential poll.

Times wires

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