LONDON // The British government remained defiant last night in the face of outrage in Italy over a failed military operation to rescue two westerners held hostage by a militant Islamist group in Nigeria.
The Italian president, Giorgio Napolitano, said yesterday it was "inexplicable" that his government was not consulted about the decision to go ahead with the joint UK-Nigerian operation, which resulted in the two hostages - one an Italian - being killed.
"The behaviour of the British government in not informing Italy is inexplicable," he told reporters in Rome. "A political and diplomatic clarification is necessary."
Construction workers Chris McManus, 28, a Briton, and the Italian Franco Lamolinara, 47, were shot dead by their captors on Thursday as the rescue mission by Nigerian troops and British special forces got underway at a compound in Sokoto in the north-west of the country.
The deaths of the hostages, who were kidnapped at gunpoint last May by members of Boko Haram, prompted a chorus of protests from politicians yesterday because Britain had only informed the Italian government about the operation when it was already underway.
As the prime minister, Mario Monti, held a security committee meeting yesterday to review the rescue bid, the former prime minister Massimo D'Alema, who is now president of the parliamentary security committee, called for a full explanation "on the reasons why the British government did not inform our own".
Lucio Malan, a senator, added that it seemed incomprehensible that the Italians were not involved in the decision to go ahead with the operation.
"It is quite uncommon that a country that is involved is not informed before," he told the BBC. "Apparently, it was a very difficult situation and it might have been the best decision, but it is still to be explained why the Italian authorities haven't been informed."
However, the UK prime minister, David Cameron, said: "After months of not knowing where they were being held, we received credible information about their location. A window of opportunity arose to secure their release.
"We also had reason to believe that their lives were under imminent and growing danger. The terrorists holding the two hostages made very clear threats to take their lives, including in a video that was posted on the internet.
"Preparations were made to mount an operation to attempt to rescue Chris and Franco. Together with the Nigerian government, I authorised it to go ahead, with UK support."
Although the Associated Press quoted a Nigerian official as saying the two hostages were killed in crossfire during the rescue bid, Mr Cameron said the pair were "murdered by their captors before they could be rescued".
Government sources in London yesterday said that, although the Italians had been kept informed when intelligence emerged some weeks ago of the hostages' location, the details of the rescue bid had been kept secret.
"It is essential in this type of covert operation that it remains covert - simply put, the fewer people who know, the better," he said.
A spokesman for Mr Cameron added yesterday afternoon: "An option was always a rescue operation. We have been keeping (the Italians) informed throughout. Things moved quite quickly in recent days and we had to respond to that. The prime minister was asked for authorisation and gave that authorisation, but this was a Nigerian-led operation.
"In any situation such as this, we need to take the advice of those people on the ground closest to the situation. Their very strong advice was that it was important to act and to act quickly and that that was the best chance of getting these people out. Early indications are that both men were murdered by their captors before they could be rescued."
The two men, who worked for an Italian construction company, were both believed to have been killed as a battle raged for more than an hour at their compound. About 20 marines from Britain's elite Special Boat Squadron were involved along with Nigerian troops, supported by at least one tank, according to local news reports yesterday.
In a statement, the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, commended the "cooperation and understanding of the British and Italian governments" and said that "the perpetrators of the murderous act" had been arrested would face "the full wrath of the law".
There were reports that at least two of the militants had been shot dead while Sky News said that eight of the captors had been arrested.