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Hostage Rescue Operation (Nigeria)

Volume 542: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2012

With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the attempted rescue of Chris McManus and his colleague, the Italian national Franco Lamolinara, who were, very sadly, killed by their kidnappers during the operation on Thursday 8 March. I will give the House as much information as I can on the background, the events leading up to the rescue attempt and the operation itself. However, the House will understand that I will not be able to say anything that might compromise intelligence sources or jeopardise future operations. I should also inform the House that there will be a coroner’s inquest into the cause of death of Christopher McManus, and my statement today must not in any way prejudice the course of the coroner’s inquiries.

But first, Mr Speaker, I am sure the whole House would wish to join me in expressing utter condemnation of the murder of these two innocent people, and in offering my heartfelt condolences to the families of both Christopher McManus and Franco Lamolinara.

Chris McManus and his colleague were kidnapped by armed men from Birnin Kebbi, in north-west Nigeria, on the night of 12 May 2011. In the early days of the kidnap, it was not clear who had taken them or what their motives were, but as the days passed and no demands were received, and as the tempo of terrorist activity in Nigeria increased, we concluded that, unlike other kidnap cases in Nigeria, this was not a straightforward criminal kidnap, and that Chris and Franco had most probably been abducted by terrorist extremists linked to Boko Haram and calling themselves AQ in Nigeria.

Boko Haram was founded in the early 2000s. From 2010, the group launched an increasingly aggressive campaign of violent attacks. The House will be aware of the appalling toll that the group has inflicted on Nigeria over the past year or so—through attacks against churches on Christmas day 2010, with over 30 deaths, to the co-ordinated attacks in Kano on 20 January 2011 that resulted in nearly 200 deaths. Boko Haram has murdered hundreds of Nigerians over the past two years. Attacks have also been launched against international targets. In an attack on the UN building in Abuja on 26 August 2010, 23 people were killed. Sadly, the violence continues. Attacks against a church in Jos and police stations in Kano and Maiduguri over the weekend have added to the terrible toll.

Following the kidnap, cross-Government crisis management teams were established in our high commission in Abuja and in London. They began work to identify who had taken Chris and Franco, and to locate them. The Nigerian Government have supported our efforts throughout and worked closely with us. We also worked closely with the Italian Government throughout the period through intelligence and diplomatic channels in order to keep them abreast of developments and informed of our efforts.

From the outset of the effort to find Chris and Franco, our objectives were clear and focused: to secure their safe release while continuing the long-standing policy of successive British Governments not to make concessions to hostage takers or to pay ransoms to terrorists. To do otherwise would serve only to increase the threat to UK nationals. Where terrorists are involved in kidnapping, payment of ransoms is illegal under UK law.

During Chris and Franco’s captivity the Government’s emergency committee, Cobra, met regularly to review progress and discuss steps to secure their safe release. During their captivity the kidnappers made threats, through a video and by direct contact with Chris’s family, that they intended to kill Chris and Franco, but at no time during their captivity did the kidnappers make any coherent demands.

Throughout the 10 months of Chris and Franco’s captivity, we worked very closely with the Nigerian Government to track down their kidnappers and identify the location where they were being held. The close working over that period included preparation for the possibility of a hostage rescue. The Prime Minister discussed the case with President Jonathan during his visit to Nigeria in July 2011, and as a result agreed a package of UK support for Nigeria’s counter-terrorism efforts. As part of that package, a sustained operation was conducted to identify members of the group responsible for the kidnapping. Earlier last week a number of them were apprehended, and during debriefing late on 7 March, credible intelligence was obtained identifying the probable location of the hostages at a house or compound in Sokoto, northern Nigeria.

The Foreign Secretary briefed the Prime Minister that evening, and at his request chaired a meeting of Cobra at 8.15 on the morning of 8 March to assess the situation. Following that meeting, the Prime Minister received a full briefing. In the hour or so that followed, the location was confirmed, although we still did not know if the kidnappers and their victims were inside. On the ground, the Nigerian army had secured a cordon some distance around the property and an assault group, including UK support, was in place.

The assessment on the ground was that there was a significant possibility that the kidnappers, if present, were already aware that their security had been compromised, and if not, that the level of military activity in the town meant that there was a real risk of them developing that awareness. The military judgment was that the hostages were facing an imminent and escalating threat and that, although an immediate rescue attempt would inevitably involve risk, it represented the best chance of securing the release of Chris and Franco alive. The Prime Minister was briefed by military and national security advisers, and gave his authorisation for an operation to release the hostages to go ahead with UK support. As soon as possible afterwards, our ambassador in Rome informed the Italian authorities that an operation was getting under way.

The Nigerian security forces, with UK support, launched the assault on the compound last Thursday at 10.58 am London time. UK personnel encountered and killed one armed kidnapper almost immediately on entering the compound. As the assault teams moved into the compound, UK personnel found the bodies of Chris and Franco, already dead, in a room at the rear of the compound. Early indications are clear that both men were murdered by their captors with automatic gunfire before they could be rescued. Three further guards of the hostages were killed by Nigerian forces during an operation that lasted approximately an hour and a half in total. None were taken alive.

Following the operation the Prime Minister called the McManus family to tell them how sorry he was that we had not been able to bring Chris home safely. He also spoke to Prime Minister Monti to pass on his condolences, and to President Jonathan to express his thanks for Nigerian support. This was a difficult operation that it was judged had to be carried out at speed, in view of the risk to the lives of Chris and Franco. One Nigerian soldier was wounded in the rescue attempt. I wish him a speedy recovery from his injuries, and I want to express our gratitude again to the members of the Nigerian forces, along with our UK personnel, who risked their lives in the attempt to rescue Chris and Franco.

The deaths of Chris McManus and Franco Lamolinara were a terrible tragedy. But let us be clear that the responsibility for their deaths lies squarely with the people who kidnapped them, held them, threatened them and then murdered them in cold blood. Terrorism and kidnapping can never be justified. Many of the group responsible for the kidnapping and murder of Chris and Franco, including its senior leaders, are either dead or have been detained—an important achievement in reducing the threat of future kidnapping. However, violent extremist Islamist groups remain active in Nigeria, and so long as they do, we will work with the Nigerians and other allies to fight the scourge of terrorism wherever it manifests itself.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, a copy of which was handed to me as he started speaking, as he knows. Our thoughts are rightly with the families and friends of Mr McManus and Mr Lamolinara. Both were killed in cold blood, and those responsible for their abduction and murder, as well as those who provide support for them, must be pursued.

The Defence Secretary rightly paid tribute to the vital role that British special forces play around the world, and the entire country agrees with that sentiment. They are increasingly central to counter-terrorism operations. We rely on their expertise, discretion and courage. It is right, therefore, that we maintain the sovereign operational autonomy of our special forces in future. In that light, and in the light of everything we know about the operation, we believe that the Government took the right course of action in seeking to rescue two innocent captives.

It is, however, concerning that the Italian President—who is, by general agreement, a measured man—called Britain’s action “inexplicable”, while Prime Minister Monti has asked the UK Government for a “detailed reconstruction of the events”, and that the Italian Government have demanded the “utmost clarity”. Such discord suits no one other than our enemies. In the interests of that clarity, can the Secretary of State offer further details of the contacts with the Italian Government? The Prime Minister’s spokesman stated on 9 March:

“We contacted the Italians yesterday as the operation was getting under way,”

while the Foreign Secretary has said that the Government were

“constrained how much we were able to consult others”.

Downing street also stated that a possible rescue attempt had been raised with the Italian Government beforehand and no objections were raised. In what was a substantial statement, the Defence Secretary gave little detail of the interaction with the Italian Government. Will he detail his contacts with the Italian Government in advance of the operation? More widely, were assurances given to the Italian Government that they would have the right to sanction any rescue attempt of one of their citizens?

On the specifics of the rescue operation, the Ministry of Defence has said that this was a Nigerian-led operation with the UK Special Boat Service in support. Will the Secretary of State share with the House as much information as he can about the rules of engagement that were agreed with the Nigerian authorities, bearing in mind his earlier comments about the need to protect intelligence?

There have been various separate reports of ransoms being paid in full or in part to the hostage takers. The UK Government have a clear policy on ransom payments, as the Secretary of State has reminded us today. The reports claim that approximately £1 million was paid to the captors as a down payment on a potential £5 million ransom. I would like to give the Secretary of State the opportunity to confirm that no British official or Minister had prior knowledge of, or agreed to, any payment being made by a third party or foreign Government for the release of a British national.

Turning to the wider context, Nigeria is one of the countries not mentioned in the Government’s strategic defence and security review, but it is a nation that will require our collective attention. It is west Africa’s predominant power, Africa’s most populous country and the world’s 11th largest producer of oil. The UK has a positive diplomatic relationship with Nigeria, and a vibrant diaspora community that enriches our country. However, Nigeria is a country in which roughly two thirds of the people live on less than £1 a day, and in which one in five children die in infancy before the age of five, and 12 million are not in school. Those are the conditions in which radicalisation can fester.

The hostage takers, Boko Haram, have been referred to as the Nigerian Taliban and are accused by the head of Nigerian armed forces of having ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The group is particularly active in Saharan states and was responsible for the bombing of the UN headquarters. The US embassy recently warned staff about its activity, and the head of US military’s Africa command has said that Boko Haram might be expanding because of an alliance with al-Qaeda. What assessment have the UK Government made about the links between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda? It has been reported that the National Security Committee discussed the hostage crisis on 20 separate occasions. If that is the case, it is a welcome reflection of just how fiercely the UK Government focused on this crisis, but will the Secretary of State share with the House his assessment of the continuing threat to British nationals and interests in Nigeria and the wider region?

I look forward to hearing the Secretary of State’s response. This tragedy is another painful reminder that the UK must retain the ability to act across the globe. It is also a reflection of the vindictiveness of our opponents and the valour of our forces. My final request today is to ask the Defence Secretary to convey the appreciation of Parliament as a whole to the commanders of the Special Boat Service for their remarkable efforts and bravery.

First, may I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman for what turned out to be the non-delivery of my statement prior to my standing up to deliver it? I knew that he was going to get it late, but I did not know that it was not going to arrive at all. I apologise to him for that. I am also extremely grateful to him for his support. He and most of his colleagues on the Front Bench have been in government, and they understand the difficulty involved in making these fine judgments and decisions, often under extreme time pressure constraints.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the information that had been given to the Italians, and about the nature of the contact with them. He will understand that the contact was not conducted by me; it was conducted through the Foreign Office. Throughout the process, a regular dialogue was maintained between the security services and their Italian counterparts, on a day-to-day, business-as-usual basis. Last Thursday morning, Her Majesty’s ambassador in Rome visited the Italian authorities as soon as he was able to do so after the completion of the Cobra meeting to pass to the Italians the information about the operation that was getting under way.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether we had agreed that the Italians would essentially have a power of veto over such an operation. I find that question slightly strange, in view of his earlier remarks about the importance of retaining the sovereign capability of our forces. I have to tell him that we did not agree that the Italians would have any power of veto over a rescue operation involving a British citizen, but of course we consulted them throughout the 10-month period. They were well aware of the direction in which the operation was moving.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the rules of engagement. Of course this was a Nigerian-led operation on Nigerian soil; the area was secured by Nigerian forces, and was under the overall command of a Nigerian commander. Appropriate arrangements had been agreed with the Nigerian authorities to ensure that any UK personnel involved in lethal activity would be protected from any redress under Nigerian law. I am happy to be able to reassure the right hon. Gentleman on that front.

I, too, have read the reports of ransom payments, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. The UK’s policy is clear: we do not pay ransoms to terrorists; no UK officials or Ministers were involved in any discussions about the payment of ransoms to terrorists; and we are not aware of any ransom having been paid or indeed any ransom having been demanded.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of Nigeria as a country. When the defence engagement strategy is published—it will not be too far in the future —he will see that Nigeria plays a very prominent part in that document and in the agenda going forward. We have a strong relationship with Nigeria—a strong military to military relationship—and we provide ongoing counter-terrorism support to the Nigerians; and we have one of the largest bilateral aid programmes with Nigeria, precisely to address the underlying causes of discontent in the poverty to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.

The right hon. Gentleman is, of course, right to be concerned about Boko Haram and its links to al-Qaeda. Our understanding is that it is not directly linked to AQ in the Islamic Maghreb, but that factions of Boko Haram have started to refer to themselves as AQ in Nigeria. The linkages between the organisations are somewhat tenuous and not well understood by us, but it is absolutely clear that we should be concerned about this development.

To answer the right hon. Gentleman’s other questions, Cobra—not the National Security Council—met 33 times during the period of captivity to discuss this particular kidnapping. As for the threat to UK nationals, of course there is a threat to them and others from the ongoing extremist terrorist activity in northern Nigeria. I would say this to the right hon. Gentleman, however. While the action taken last Thursday did not, sadly, have the outcome we all hoped for in the safe return of Chris and Franco, it has undoubtedly reduced the threat to UK nationals by demonstrating to would-be kidnappers that the UK is willing and able to react robustly when our nationals are put at risk.

It is the case, is it not, that the difference between success and failure in these operations is often a very narrow one? While it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that those who may be asked to carry out such operations are properly trained and equipped, it is necessarily the case that when Government authority is sought for these operations, the Government have to rely on the advice, judgment and experience of those on the ground.

My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. Throughout the critical period last week, we were being advised by UK personnel on the ground and UK senior military personnel here in London. The Prime Minister quite rightly challenged and questioned the advice he was given, but was of course strongly guided by the professional judgments.

Having, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), had to make similar difficult and urgent decisions in such dire circumstances—sometimes with equally unhappy consequences—may I fully endorse the decisions that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister had to make in this situation? May I just press the right hon. Gentleman a little more on the position of President Giorgio Napolitano? I happen to know him, and have done since he was the Interior Minister when I was Home Secretary 15 years ago. He is extraordinarily cautious and measured in his language. It is plain that he felt blind-sided. Will the Foreign Secretary say what high-level efforts are being made to assuage his concerns at this stage?

I am sure that the Foreign Secretary could, but as he is not here, I will have a go instead. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that there have been extensive contacts with the Italian Government and authorities since the expressions of unhappiness that we heard on Thursday and Friday, and I think it fair to say that the situation has been clarified to the satisfaction of all parties.

In these very difficult operations, surprise is vital. I have not yet seen the statement because it has not been distributed, but I believe that the operation began at 10.58 am, and that the area was secured by the Nigerian army. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend is allowed to answer this question, but was the timing of the operation precipitated by the fact that security had been breached and we were forced to go in? Will he confirm that the timing was not of our choice?

My hon. Friend is right. The judgment was that, first because of the apprehension of members of the group earlier in the week and secondly because of the presence of significant numbers of Nigerian troops not very far from the compound in question, it would be taking too great a risk to defer the operation. The military judgment was that despite the risks involved, there was a greater chance of rescuing the hostages alive by acting immediately.

These are always the most difficult decisions to take. Our condolences must go to the families of the two men, and our profound thanks must go to our special forces, who acquire and are then prepared to use skill and bravery to carry out operations of this kind. We must be enormously grateful to them for doing so.

May I return to the issue of the unfortunate discord between us and the Italian Government? Is the Secretary of State able or prepared to say anything that would explain some of the complexities that would arise from a nation’s attempts to embed another in the kind of decisions that would be necessary to keep them completely and absolutely as one in such circumstances?

I think it fair to say that throughout the long months of captivity there were very good and full discussions and exchanges of views with the Italians, and that they understood very clearly our direction of travel and the way in which we sought to advance our understanding of the situation and then bring it to a close. The circumstances that arose on Wednesday evening and Thursday morning represented an accelerated closing of a time window which simply made it impossible to consult as fully as one might ideally have liked. I am assured that information was continually being transmitted between intelligence agencies, as is the norm between allied agencies, but that there was not enough time for the discussions at Government-to-Government level that we might have had if a further day, or even 12 hours, had been available to us.

As my right hon. Friend and others have said, this was an extremely difficult operation, and one in which the odds were increasingly stacked against us. Does my right hon. Friend agree that while we commend the courage and professionalism of our special forces, it is extremely important that any examination of the details of what took place does not in any way compromise the necessary secrecy of the methods that they employ?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The operational security of our special forces remains paramount at all times, which is why we never comment on their operations and, indeed, never confirm or deny their involvement in any particular operation.

Christopher McManus was one of my constituents. I have been in touch with his family regularly both before and after his untimely death, and I want to pay a very real tribute to their unceasing efforts to secure his release—in conjunction with the Foreign Office, which was extremely helpful—not just in the most recent period, but throughout nine or 10 nerve-racking months.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, but may I ask him to say a little more about the exact nature of the intelligence that was collected in the raid on Boko Haram in Kaduna, which indicated that precipitate action was necessary to save the hostages’ lives? May I also ask why such expressly urgent action was needed that the Italian Government could not be consulted before a final decision was made, because the life of one of their citizens, as well as of Chris McManus, was at risk?

First, may I join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the McManus family? I attended a significant number of the Cobra meetings that have been held on this subject since October last year, and whenever there were reported contacts with the family, comment was made on how engaged they had been with the process and how focused they were on getting the result we all wanted. They were under tremendous pressure, but they conducted themselves with remarkable dignity and co-operated very well with the authorities throughout the process.

The right hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot go into the details of the intelligence that was available, but what he has to understand is that there was a fast-evolving situation. On Tuesday evening, some people were arrested. During the course of their debriefing on Wednesday, several of them provided information that gave us a credible fix on where the hostages might be being held. Later, additional intelligence was available to corroborate that. So the level of knowledge and understanding was ratcheting up, and at the same time the deployment of Nigerian forces into the area in question raised a significant risk that the hostage-takers would become aware that the operation was under way.

As chair of the British-Italian parliamentary group, I have been closely following reports in the Italian press. Saturday’s La Stampa stated that the Italian secret services had been informed in the morning, and Saturday’s Corriere della Sera reported that the two countries’ secret services spoke to each other at 10.15 am on Thursday, when the operation was imminent. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we, and all our counterparts and friends in the Italian Parliament, should stand in solidarity in facing threats from terrorism, hostage taking and piracy, and that rather than allowing critics to divide us, we should continue to work together against terrorism and hostage taking?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiment, and I can assure him that that has been the nature of the relationship between the UK authorities and the Italians throughout this process. We have worked closely together and it has been a relationship of close collaboration and close understanding. On the question of communication, I can only repeat what I have already said: my understanding is that there was regular, day-to-day communication between the intelligence agencies, including on the morning of last Thursday.

Mario Monti and his Government are doing a tremendous and very difficult job in repairing the damage done by the Berlusconi regime, and they are our natural allies on many issues, not least in the European Union, so can the Secretary of State assure the House that he, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister will make every effort to address the apparent grievance felt at the highest level in the Italian Government about some elements of the way in which this operation was handled?

I echo the right hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. We have extremely good relationships with the Italians, including on military and defence matters. I repeat what I said earlier: I believe that the conversations that have taken place over the weekend have very substantially defused the situation. On Thursday, there will be an operational visit to brief the Italians on military and intel channels, and I am told that the Foreign Secretary intends to visit Italy later in March.

For the reasons outlined by the Secretary of State, there can be no doubt in my mind that the Prime Minister took the right decision—the only question is whether that decision was communicated quickly enough to the Italians. According to what my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) cited from the Italian press, it would appear that the decision was communicated quickly but that it perhaps did not then reach up into the Government in Italy as quickly as it should have done. Will the Secretary of State confirm that we did convey the information about the decision as quickly as we could, and that there was no question of our deciding not to do that because of doubts about the information leaking, the Italians wanting to pay ransoms or anything of that sort?

I can absolutely assure my hon. Friend that there was no question of information being withheld. There were two clear, separate channels of information. The intelligence agencies were communicating on a regular basis, and the British ambassador in Rome went as soon as he practically could to deliver the information to the Italian Government, once the operation had got under way.

As the Secretary of State will know, a number of foreign nationals are still being held as kidnap victims in Nigeria and many British citizens work in Nigeria. I hope that this is not seen as the end of support for the Nigerian Government. Will he confirm that if President Jonathan asks for more support to help with counter-terrorism, it will be forthcoming from us?

I thought that I had already said that the package of counter-terrorism support that we put in place after the Prime Minister’s visit this year will continue. So long as the Nigerians are facing a threat from extremist Islamist terrorists, we will support them, as we support other allies in the fight against terrorists.

Members of this House who serve on the all-party group on global education for all spent half-term week in Nigeria, and the spectre of the burnt-out United Nations building in Abuja will stay in our minds for a long time. The question raised by the Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs is crucial, not least because we have so many excellent Department for International Development officials and people from the voluntary sector working in the sensitive area of education, particularly in the volatile northern states. What hope can the Secretary of State give those officials that sufficiently robust security arrangements are in place for those important workers?

The Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr O'Brien) tells me that we have taken all necessary steps to protect UK personnel in Nigeria who are working on aid programmes, and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) tells me that we have taken the appropriate steps to protect Foreign Office personnel, too.

The right hon. Gentleman has talked about the security support being provided to President Jonathan and the Government of Nigeria. Does he or the Foreign Secretary have any plans to visit Nigeria to cement that relationship further and offer any further support that the Nigerian Government may require?

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk has just informed me that he will be in Nigeria next week. I am not aware of the Foreign Secretary’s forward travel plans, but, as I said to the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) a few moments ago, when we publish our defence engagement strategy shortly, Members will see that we are placing very great importance on the defence relationship with Nigeria. Defence Ministers will be responding to that document by pursuing the deepening and strengthening of those relationships.

I join colleagues in paying tribute to not only our special forces, but our intelligence services, for their professionalism and dedication, and for the unique global security reach they give our country. In particular, I welcome the message that this operation sends—tragic though the final outcome was—which is that in such a situation, the UK leaves no one behind and leaves no stone unturned in looking after the interests of our citizens abroad.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. That is absolutely our position: when a UK citizen is deprived of their liberty, wherever in the world, we will deploy all the resources available to us to seek their safe return.

I worked as an engineer in Nigeria for several years, and I can only pay tribute to the courage of Mr McManus and his colleague in facing captivity for so long. I welcome the assurances about working with Nigeria to address the challenge of terrorism, but many British engineers do go abroad to work, partly because of a lack of opportunities in this country, so will the Secretary of State work with his colleagues across government to ensure that these people are well informed about the threats they may face, and that we are well informed of the numbers working abroad and the work they do? We must properly value their contribution.

The Foreign Office maintains travel advice to UK travellers in respect of all countries and will, of course, update it, but I take on board the hon. Lady’s comments about engineers and people working in similar professions, who of course play a very important ambassadorial role for the UK as they go about their daily business. We seek to understand where people are although, of course, we do not have formal registration requirements in any sense.

My right hon. Friend suggested that the heightened level of military activity in Sokoto might have alerted the kidnappers that their security had been compromised. Was there any way in which that military activity could have been reduced or was it absolutely essential to the conduct of the operation?

The control of the wider area was under the command of the Nigerian military authorities and the approach that they determined was appropriate—they, after all, are in the best position to judge—was that a cordon at some distance needed to be placed around the area. Our concern was that a number of events, starting with the arrest of members of the group on Tuesday evening through to the movements of Nigerian military into the area overnight on Wednesday, could have given the kidnappers an increasing awareness of what was going on and therefore put at increasing risk the lives of the hostages.

May I associate myself with what the Defence Secretary and the shadow Defence Secretary said about the operation itself? The Secretary of State gave us some detail about the timeline of events, but he did not give us the exact time at which our ambassador in Rome informed the Italian authorities that an operation was getting under way. What was that time?

I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman the exact time, but the Cobra meeting broke up just before 9 am and the responsible officials undertook to go away and contact the British ambassador in Rome immediately and to ask him to go as soon as was practicable to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome to provide the information to them.

Having established the absence of a power of veto in this case, what could Mr Monti possibly have said had he been consulted in advance, as apparently he wished to have been, that would materially have impacted on the decision matrix and, ultimately, the course of events?

I do not think that the course of events would have been changed in any way. In fairness, if the boot was on the other foot, UK Ministers would undoubtedly feel the need to know what was going on with an operation that would impact on the life of a UK citizen. I do not think that the Italians’ concern is in any way unreasonable, I just think they need to understand—I believe that they do, now—that, as regards the pace at which the operation developed, they were informed as expeditiously as possible. As I have said many times already this afternoon, the lines of communication between the intelligence agencies were pretty much continuously open.

The House will recall the tragic cases of Kenneth Bigley and Margaret Hassan, who were killed by their captors in Iraq some years ago, as well as the steps taken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) to ensure that the families received adequate ongoing support. May I press the Secretary of State to say what ongoing support will be given to the family of Mr McManus?

The Foreign Office has a well-established way of dealing with those issues after such an event. I know that Foreign Office officials have been in continuous contact with the family and will continue to provide support to them.

Last year, the Economic Community of West African States warned the international community about the amount of former Libyan weaponry that was crossing the border straight into the hands of Boko Haram, al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab. Given our financial interests in the area, what pressure are the Government putting on the international community to address that in order to prevent further UK kidnappings?

I am not sure that I see a direct link. There are two separate issues here. First, there is the lawlessness in Nigeria and the threat it represents in terms of the kidnapping of UK citizens, and I have outlined the support we are giving to the Nigerians to maintain their counter-terrorism effort. Secondly, there is a real and serious concern about unaccounted-for weapons, which tend to be heavier weapons such as shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles. The UK has been involved with the US in a major operation in Libya since the end of the conflict there to try to identify, track down and secure weapons that have become unaccounted for.

I want to associate myself with hon. Members’ comments sending sympathies to the families of Christopher McManus and Franco Lamolinara. I also thank our British forces for their sterling efforts out on the field. Boko Haram is a ruthless, murderous terrorist organisation that kills at will—some 200 people have been killed, 400 churches have been burned down and thousands have been displaced. It is trying to create an Islamic state in northern Nigeria. What military and financial assistance does the Minister feel that the British Government and their allies could give to Nigerian authorities to rid Nigeria of Boko Haram once and for all and to enable Nigeria to be a stable influence in Africa?

As I have said, DFID is providing one of our largest packages of bilateral aid to the Nigerian Government. Following the Prime Minister’s visit last year, we are providing a counter-terrorism support package and will continue to provide that support to the Government of Nigeria in their struggle against Islamist extremism in northern Nigeria.