Bus chase lands bin Laden world scoop for Mirror duo

Wayne Francis

 Wayne Francis may have missed the official press bus into Taliban-held Afghanistan but his risky trip to catch up with it brought a world scoop through his hotel room door.

The early-morning visitor to Room 6 in the Spinghar hotel, Jalalabad, was a member of terrorist organisation al-Qaeda and The Mirror reporter was told he had come from Osama bin Laden himself.

It was, Francis told Press Gazette, an exclusive which "fell into my lap by their design". The visitor had a warning to give to the British people – there would be terrible consequences if the bombing of Afghanistan continued.

"This was a meeting out of the blue but let’s not be naive. They have their agenda. They were very well informed and knew Tony Blair had sent out this note to treat al-Jazeera material and al-Qaeda material with caution," Francis said.

Yet for him it was an incredible moment in a trip he thought he had missed but which ended with Francis and photographer Mike Moore being the only newspapermen to get officially "behind the lines".

They had been in Pakistan for five weeks, besieging the Afghan embassy in Peshawar for a visa, even hiring a fixer to go every day to the embassy on their behalf, and getting help from Imtiaz Hussein, the chief reporter of The Statesman newspaper.

Then, last Friday, they heard visas had been granted to journalists in Islamabad to go to see the US bomb destruction in Afghanistan.

"They had been given to about 14 journalists with no British newspaper included," said Francis. Hussein rang Islamabad to say he could vouch for The Mirror pair and two visas were finally granted, just as the official party was setting off up the Khyber Pass.

Francis and Moore still had to get permits to travel through the tribal areas to the border at Torkham and by Saturday evening Francis was getting calls from his news editor, Connor Hanna, and head of news Richard Wallace, both extremely concerned that they had missed the official bus.

"The option facing us was a drive to Torkham with a border guard and then negotiate independently for permission to cross the border, where we hoped we could get Taliban guards to escort us to Jalalabad," said Francis. "There was a window where we would be on our own in Afghanistan without proper protection."

Even when confirmation came that the Taliban had agreed to escort them to team up with the official press party, it didn’t allay Mirror HQ caution.

Editor Piers Morgan called at 1.45am to talk through the security aspects and finally gave the go-ahead on the strict non-negotiable terms that the pair would stick with the bus.

Once with it, they were taken straight away to the bombed airfield and to a community hospital where they saw wounded children.

Francis said: "It was all very carefully worked out – nothing gung ho."

By Jean Morgan

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