|Entrance To Where Hostages Were Held; Photo Credit: AFP|
Plans to free two Western hostages were well underway when they were killed during a failed rescue bid in Nigeria, a spokesman for the kidnappers told the Mauritanian news agency ANI.
The spokesman for a splinter cell of radical Islamist sect Boko Haram claims his group was negotiating the release of the British and Italian hostages and had reached an agreement with their families that excluded government involvement.
However a senior government source in London on Sunday denied there was any such plan, saying the rescue operation had been the best option.
"The kidnappers had established contact with the family of the British hostage and had begun negotiations asking for a five million euro ($6.5 million) ransom and the freedom of certain prisoners," the Islamist spokesman said Saturday.
The online news agency ANI often publishes reliable information on radical Islamist groups in west Africa. In December, it released a video in which gunmen threatened to kill one of the hostages if their demands were not met.
The spokesman added that the family of the Italian hostage had entered the negotiations in which both families had been provided with evidence that the hostages were still alive.
He said the kidnappers had "proved their flexibility: They accepted to add the Italian to the agreement without supplementary demands and gave up their demand that detained Islamists in the region be freed".
He said the parties had finally agreed on a ransom of 1.2 million euros, and no government intervention.
"A tiny part of this ransom had already been paid a few days earlier and the rest was to come," he added.
Italian engineer Franco Lamolinara, 48, and his British colleague Chris McManus, 28, were killed during the failed rescue bid authorised by British Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday.
Boko Haram, blamed for scores of deadly attacks in recent months, has denied responsibility for the abductions.
The splinter group's spokesman said the two hostages were to be released by their kidnappers to intermediaries.
"But British and Nigerian secret services exploited the exchanges between the two parties to pinpoint where the hostages were being held to launch a commando operation to free them.
"The group then reacted swiftly to this plan by eliminating the two hostages," he said, adding Britain had been threatened with a "painful response".
ANI says the group holding the hostages was led by Khaled Al-Barnaoui of Niger, one of the first from his country to join the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) which became AQIM after aligning with Al-Qaeda in 2007.
On Thursday morning Nigerian security forces, supported by British agents, carried out their ultimately failed operation in a house in Sokoto in the extreme northwest of Nigeria where the hostages had been held since May.
"There was never any coherent demand, no request for money and no indication that the hostages would be released," a senior British government official said on condition of anonymity.
"The situation on Thursday was that their lives were under immediate and growing threat and it was likely they would be killed if we didn't act within that window. It was a difficult decision but the right one."
A spokesman for Britain's Foreign Office reiterated the country's stance of not giving concessions, including ransoms, to hostage takers.