Reuters photographer was killed after being left behind in retreat, Afghan general says

Reuters photographer was killed after being left behind in retreat, Afghan general says
24 min read
Danish Siddiqui and two Afghan commandos were killed in a Taliban attack while on another mission, a failed attempt to retake the key border town of Spin Boldak. That rout was an early milestone in the collapse of the Afghan military.
Danish Siddiqui was left behind at a military retreat in Afghanistan [Getty]

As the Taliban's campaign to reconquer Afghanistan was gathering pace in June, hundreds of people were dying in the fighting, and tens of thousands were fleeing. Danish Siddiqui, a 38-year-old star photojournalist for Reuters based in New Delhi, decided he wanted to help cover the story, telling a boss: "If we don't go, who will?"

On Sunday, July 11, Siddiqui arrived at a base of the Afghan Special Forces in the southern city of Kandahar. There he embedded with a unit of several hundred elite commandos tasked with flushing out Taliban fighters who in the previous few weeks had been steadily capturing territory.

On Tuesday, July 13, Siddiqui joined a successful mission to rescue a policeman who was surrounded by insurgents. His convoy was returning when it came under fire from rocket-propelled grenades.

The Humvee he was travelling in was hit by one of the RPGs. Three other vehicles were destroyed. Siddiqui captured on video the flash and jolt as a grenade struck the side of his vehicle and the commandos up front drove through the barrage. His images and report of the mission went on the Reuters wire, and he later shared the action on Twitter.

"Holy mother of god," one friend responded by WhatsApp. "This is insane."

Siddiqui, who had covered wars, mob violence and refugee crises, reassured the friend that Reuters had done a risk assessment before he embedded with the Special Forces. Reuters editors and managers have responsibility for approving or rejecting risky assignments and have the authority to end them. Journalists, too, have the option of withdrawing from the field.

"Don't worry," Siddiqui wrote. "I know when to pull the plug."

Three days later, on July 16, Siddiqui and two Afghan commandos were killed in a Taliban attack while on another mission, a failed attempt to retake the key border town of Spin Boldak. That rout was an early milestone in the collapse of the Afghan military. In the weeks that followed, the Taliban conquered city after city. Its ultimate victory came in mid August, when Kabul was the last to fall.

Siddiqui's death underlines the risks faced by journalists, both in the international media and in local outlets, when covering conflict and political strife. Media organizations are grappling with how best to safeguard their staff while publishing vital news in the public interest. Globally, more than 600 journalists have been killed since 2010, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Afghanistan has been especially dangerous, accounting for 35 of those deaths as of early August, 28 of them local journalists.


Family and colleagues were devastated to learn of Siddiqui's death when grim images of his body began circulating on social media. While some details about his death remain unclear, enough information has emerged to give an outline of events.

First reports indicated Siddiqui was killed in crossfire while trying to take photographs in the bazaar at Spin Boldak, a hotly contested Afghan border crossing with Pakistan. But an examination of Siddiqui's communications with Reuters and accounts from an Afghan Special Forces commander show that Siddiqui was first injured by shrapnel from a rocket. He was evacuated to a local mosque for treatment. And he was killed, according to the top Afghan officer, after being abandoned with two soldiers in the confusion of a retreat.

Major-General Haibatullah Alizai, who was the commander of Afghanistan's Special Operations Corps when it hosted Siddiqui in Kandahar, told Reuters it was evident now that, in fierce fighting, his soldiers withdrew from Spin Boldak and left behind Siddiqui and two commandos accompanying him, mistakenly thinking they had joined the retreating convoy. His account was corroborated by four soldiers who say they witnessed the attack.

"They were left there," Alizai said.

Other circumstances surrounding Siddiqui's death are still not clear. Afghan security officials and Indian government officials have told Reuters that, based on photos, intelligence and an examination of Siddiqui's body, his body was mutilated while in Taliban custody after his death. The Taliban denies this.

A British ballistics expert consulted by Reuters, Philip Boyce of Forensic Equity, reviewed photos posted on social media soon after the attack and compared them with pictures and X-rays taken after Siddiqui's body was recovered from the Taliban. Boyce concluded it was "evident that he was shot multiple further times after he was killed." Some reports also have claimed his body was run over by a vehicle; Boyce said the damage observed in the photos was consistent with gunshots and didn't necessarily imply other kinds of post-mortem injury.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said Siddiqui's injuries occurred prior to the discovery of the body by Taliban fighters.

Siddiqui's loss has struck a chord in India and in the global photojournalism community. He shared a Pulitzer Prize for feature photography with colleagues for his iconic images of the Rohingya refugee exodus from Myanmar in 2018. At home, he gained fame, and drew threats, for images that captured penetrating insights into Indian politics and social tensions, including his haunting shots earlier this year of the funeral pyres of Covid-19 victims and last year of a Hindu mob beating a Muslim man in Delhi.

Such work made Siddiqui one of India's most important photojournalists, the renowned Magnum photographer Raghu Rai told Reuters. "This is one of those rare guys, for sure, and to be doing this in today's time is hugely, hugely challenging and fearful," said Rai, 79.

In a statement, Siddiqui's family said, "Danish was not only an outstanding professional but also a wonderful human being who captured the truth through his lens."

Inside Reuters, the death of the distinguished colleague and father of two young children has caused anguish. Some of the news agency's journalists have questioned whether Reuters provided adequate security for Siddiqui on the assignment. This report was prepared and edited by Reuters journalists who weren't involved in managing the photographer or in the decisions to approve his assignment.

Krishna N. Das, a correspondent based in Delhi who worked with Siddiqui, said some colleagues have zeroed in on the decision by Reuters editors to allow the photographer to stay embedded with Afghan forces after the July 13 RPG attack that damaged his Humvee.

"Why was he allowed to go back in the embed?" asked Das. "Why was he not pulled out of the deployment?"

Others say an embed with highly trained Afghan forces was an appropriate way to fulfill the assignment Siddiqui undertook in bearing witness to the struggle.

"If you get a chance to join a mission like this, you take it," Goran Tomašević, a fellow Reuters photographer famed for his images of war, said of Siddiqui's final assignment. "The safest place to be quite often is with a group of soldiers like this."

Members of the newsroom familiar with the decision-making say Siddiqui's embed with soldiers in Afghanistan was backed by senior photo editors, vetted by external advisers and newsroom managers who handle security, and reviewed by a group of top editors who regularly meet to consider potentially dangerous assignments.

That group, which includes Editor-in-Chief Alessandra Galloni, Executive Editor Gina Chua, who oversees security, and John Pullman, the global managing editor for visuals, signed off on the embed with U.S.-trained Afghan Special Forces. Chua, who declined to comment, later approved the decision to send Siddiqui to Spin Boldak, a person familiar with the matter said.

Interviews with Reuters managers and staff, and a review of email communications, indicate that editors in South Asia weren't part of the decision to embed Siddiqui with Afghan commandos and also had no advance notice of the Spin Boldak mission.

Reuters, a unit of Thomson Reuters Inc, said in a statement deployment decisions "are made collectively." Galloni, in a written statement, said she agreed to Siddiqui's embed with Afghan Special Forces. "As editor-in-chief, I take full responsibility for the decision," she wrote.

Reuters said the events surrounding Siddiqui's death are the subject of internal and external reviews and the company is working hard to verify the facts.

In an email to staff on July 23, Galloni called Siddiqui "our brilliant colleague and devoted friend" and praised his unwavering gaze that exposed uncomfortable truths. She continued: "I also know many of you want answers. We do too." The review process that's under way, she said, "includes a detailed examination of our security procedures."

Book of remembrance

Reuters was founded in 1851 by an enterprising German named Julius Reuter who sent financial news by carrier pigeon. The agency has a long tradition of covering conflict for its clientele of investors and other media organizations that rely on its worldwide reach.

Inside its major newsrooms, Reuters places large handmade books of remembrance containing accounts of the journalists who have died in the line of duty. The first commemorates Francis John Lamplow Roberts, a 25-year-old who died of disease in 1885 covering the British military campaign in the Mahdist War in Sudan. The book contains 33 names. Siddiqui's will be the 34th.

Like many major news organizations, Reuters has tightened its security procedures considerably in recent years. In 2011, it appointed an editorial manager to oversee security and created a team of specialists to review, with veto power, potentially risky coverage. Reuters expanded its training for journalists working in hostile environments, helped develop international safety standards for freelance journalists, and distributed mandatory safety equipment for staffers and freelancers operating in conflict zones.

The focus on safety intensified after the death in 2013 of Molhem Barakat, an 18-year-old Syrian photographer who freelanced for Reuters. Assessments take into account the skills and experience of the staff involved, with hostile-environment training required; the newsworthiness of covering a conflict; and the dangers the reporter or photographer will face. In the last decade, three Reuters journalists, including Siddiqui, have been killed. In the previous 10 years, 11 died.

In her statement, Galloni, the editor-in-chief, said: "As a global news organization operating in 200 locations, we consider the safety of all our journalists our paramount priority, and we have developed a rigorous security program for those in hostile environments."

Born in 1983, Siddiqui joined Reuters in 2010 as an intern in Delhi, where he grew up. He soon moved to Mumbai, India's financial capital, where he spent almost a decade, covering stories in India and around the world. He had also covered conflicts. He was trained in how to report in dangerous environments, and his assignments included two embeds with soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Siddiqui was honoured with a sheaf of awards, including the team Pulitzer for covering the Rohingya refugee crisis. In 2019, he returned to Delhi from Mumbai as chief photographer for India, running a group of around a dozen photojournalists. Siddiqui was popular in the newsroom, a mentor to many less experienced photographers. His shirt neatly tucked into his jeans and his hair carefully parted, he would often walk around the office, coffee cup in hand, joking with his colleagues.

On long assignments away from family, colleagues recall, he would typically video call with his kids – aged 5 and 3 – before they went to bed, sometimes showing them where he was, telling them about his work and asking them what they had done through the day.

It was in Delhi that Siddiqui produced some of his most memorable work, including photographs that documented tensions between India's Hindu majority and its large Muslim minority.

Covering his own country involved risks. Early last year, during deadly communal riots in Delhi, Siddiqui, who was Muslim, dodged stones, petrol bombs and smoke grenades, and then managed to take disturbing photographs of a Muslim man being mercilessly thrashed by a Hindu mob. Eventually, the mob cornered Siddiqui, suspecting he was a Muslim. He made a narrow escape. He later came under a long barrage of online abuse from right-wingers angered by his shots, which drew national attention in India.

This year, he produced a set of images of the funeral pyres for Covid-19 victims. They were carried worldwide. Shot at a time when the government was saying it was taking adequate measures to fight the virus, the photos showed in stark and undeniable detail how deadly the outbreak had become. The images prompted a backlash, particularly on social media, where Siddiqui was branded a "vulture." Some would later celebrate his death online. But there was also an outpouring of grief and sympathy at his passing.

In a TED Talk in 2020, he showed some of his work and described his mission as a photojournalist. "My role is as a mirror and I want to expose you to the raw truth, and make you a witness to it," he said. "You can look away or stand up and act for change."

When the pandemic began to ebb slightly, Siddiqui looked for a new assignment. In Afghanistan, the Taliban was on the march. Siddiqui asked his editors if he could cover the story. He knew there were risks, colleagues said.

In the past, Siddiqui told a colleague at Reuters, he rarely experienced fear on the job. But now, with young children, he had begun to think much more about his safety. "I have worked in difficult situations and on different assignments," he said, according to the colleague. "I have never felt fear. But since I became a father, I really feel fear."

The story was worth it nonetheless, he believed. "If we don't go, who will?" Siddiqui's manager, Asia pictures editor Ahmad Masood, recalled him saying in the weeks preceding his deployment. Masood, a native of Afghanistan himself, now works from Reuters Asia headquarters in Singapore.

At the height of the US war in Afghanistan, dozens of news organisations kept offices in Kabul. In the years that followed, the number of foreign correspondents dwindled. Most news organisations, confronted by high costs and rising instability, cut back on coverage.

Assessing risk

Before going to Afghanistan, according to a close friend of Siddiqui's at another news organization, the photographer began considering a so-called embed: attaching himself to a fighting force so that he could receive its protection while observing the conflict up close. It is a common tactic for news organizations operating in war zones.

On reaching Kabul at the start of July, Siddiqui and Reuters editors first weighed an embed with an Afghan militia leader, said Rickey Rogers, the Reuters global pictures editor, based in the United States. Reuters sought advice from an external security consultant about this possibility, said a person with direct knowledge of the deliberations. The consultant said the embed should be possible if certain conditions were met, but Rogers said the idea was abandoned when the militia leader backed out.

On Saturday, July 10, the opportunity arose for an embed with Afghan Special Forces beginning the next day. A proposal was sent for approval to a group of senior Reuters editors with ultimate say on security matters, Rogers said. The group is chaired by Chua and includes Editor-in-Chief Galloni; Pullman, the global managing editor for visuals, who is Rogers' manager; and members of the company's operations team, which reports to Chua and is responsible for security.

The security group approved the embed plan. "We were talking about the Afghan Special Forces, the elite," said Rogers. "They had all the hospitals at their disposal, all the equipment needed to evacuate, including air support." Siddiqui would join their headquarters near Kandahar.

The Afghan Special Forces, some of the country's best-trained fighters, were at the centre of the battle with the Taliban. In the weeks before Siddiqui's embed, they sustained heavy casualties. In one incident, on June 16, international media reported more than 20 commandos were killed by the Taliban.

Asfandyar Mir, a security analyst specialising in Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the Taliban viewed Special Forces "as their main adversary on the battlefield."

Reuters said in a statement it consulted external security experts about the proposed embed with Special Forces, adding: "We work closely with external security specialists, advisors, and local sources – as well as staff in the region and with expertise about the region – to assess conditions on the ground. In rapidly changing environments, we review and adjust our plans."

Other news organizations had also placed journalists on the front lines with Afghan forces. As the Taliban advance gathered momentum in July, some began putting more restrictions on deployments. Journalists at three international news outlets said embeds with Special Forces were only considered in certain situations – for example within a defined urban area where frontlines were clear. Such limits, they felt, could make it easier to withdraw from peril.

In recent conflicts, such as Libya and Syria, Reuters journalists have usually entered war zones accompanied by a security adviser – typically unarmed former policemen or soldiers with an eye for avoiding trouble. Such advisers, however, are less often deployed by international media when embedding with regular well-trained forces, as those forces are held responsible for the reporters' protection.

Unlike some other media organisations, at the time of Siddiqui's death Reuters had no security expert in Kabul, or in South Asia.

Reuters previously did employ a full-time global security adviser, a former Northern Ireland policeman with decades-long experience of conflict situations, who was available round-the-clock to advise journalists on their missions. He retired in March after 16 years service and the company has yet to replace him.

"Reuters does not generally engage external security advisors to supervise operations. Reuters manages and supervises its own security," the news agency said. "News organizations differ in their processes and views, and an outside security advisor would not have the same level of familiarity with our people, protocols or practices."

Siddiqui departed for Kandahar on Sunday, July 11, the day India said it had pulled out all nationals from its consulate there due to intense fighting near the city.

Kandahar was where the Taliban launched its initial conquest of the country in the early 1990s. The city also lies close to the border with Pakistan, one of the few countries to recognise the Taliban government when the hardline Islamist group ruled until it was toppled in the U.S. invasion of 2001.

Siddiqui was ebullient as he joined the Special Forces base in Kandahar that Sunday, colleagues said. His embed began the same evening. Two days later, on July 13, he filed his images and report from the RPG attack on his convoy.

After the dispatch was published, Reuters colleagues back in Delhi teased him about his daring missions. He jokingly invited them to visit him in Afghanistan. But he corrected one colleague who said he had been taking "uncalculated risks."

"Ahem! You are wrong buddy," he said in a WhatsApp message on the night before his death. "There is a risk assessment done for everything."

Special forces 

Siddiqui posted about the RPG attack on Twitter, displaying a picture of himself lying on a patch of grass and writing that he had rested for only 15 minutes after 15 hours of the mission. Asia Pictures Editor Masood said that, at that point, he asked Siddiqui if he wanted to continue.

"You are the best judge of the situation," Masood said he told Siddiqui. "You can absolutely go back to Kabul, do you want to do that?"

Siddiqui gave the matter some thought and then told Masood he wanted to continue. Rogers said a management team discussed his continued involvement with the Special Forces on a daily basis. This team, he said, instructed Siddiqui to remain in safety at the base in Kandahar for 24 hours to see if any more patrols were attacked the following day. Siddiqui did so, and there were no attacks over the next two days.

Internally, his reporting was lauded. One senior video editor sent a note to staff praising his "very steady shot" after his vehicle took the direct hit from a grenade.

Asked why the news agency didn't pull Siddiqui out of the assignment after the RPG attack, Reuters said "we paused and reviewed the situation on the ground – including monitoring the Kandahar unit's activities – after which we allowed him to continue with the embed."

Siddiqui remained at the Special Forces base in Kandahar on Wednesday and Thursday, waiting for updates on the Special Forces' next mission.

On July 14, Taliban forces had moved into Spin Boldak, a dusty town on the volatile border with Pakistan with a reputation for opium smuggling. In the past, India has accused Pakistan of harbouring the Taliban's leadership in Balochistan province on the other side of the Spin Boldak crossing. Pakistan has said India uses spies in the border area. Both sides deny the other's accusations – but the area was a high risk for any Indian national to venture into, according to analysts.

The Special Forces offered to take Siddiqui along as they attempted to recapture the town. Siddiqui alerted his manager Masood, who emailed Rogers at 6.50 pm, Afghanistan time, on Thursday, July 15, seeking permission for Siddiqui to join the operation.

There followed a 43-minute email exchange involving photo editors and a Reuters operations manager, who is based outside Asia. Participants in the exchange noted there had been no attacks on the Special Forces unit since the incident on July 13 when Siddiqui's vehicle was struck.

"Unless anyone has objections, I think we are good to go with this," wrote the operations manager. A photo editor replied in agreement. It was 7.33 pm. The mission was due to start before midnight. According to a person familiar with the matter, Chua signed off on the decision.

Asked whether Reuters weighed security conditions in Spin Boldak, the company said that, when assessing Siddiqui's embed in Kandahar, the possibility of missions similar in type to the one to Spin Boldak were considered. "The locality of Spin Boldak itself was not," it added.

In a call with South Asia staff after the photographer's death, Chua said that before deciding to deploy Siddiqui to Kandahar, the Reuters security team "took into account the fact that he was Indian. We understood that was a risk factor as well. And we balanced that off against his experience, his judgment. He was well trained. He was well equipped."

Final conversations

While in Afghanistan, Siddiqui kept in contact with friends on social media.

On July 11, after India evacuated officials from its consulate in Kandahar, Siddiqui sent his close journalist friend a link to an article on the subject and revealed he was in the city. "Stay safe pls," his friend wrote. "Yes yes, I will pull out if I think it's too bad," Siddiqui replied.

Two days later, on July 13, Siddiqui shared a link to a report about the strike on his vehicle, and reassured the same friend that he'd "pull the plug" if needed. On July 15, the evening before his death, Siddiqui shared a Twitter thread describing his experience with the Special Forces with a small group of childhood friends on a private WhatsApp group. The thread included his dramatic footage of the RPG strike.

"THIS IS BAT SHIT CRAZY!" a friend replied within minutes, according to screenshots of the messages. He asked Siddiqui about his life insurance.

That same evening, Siddiqui messaged colleagues in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including Gibran Peshimam, the Pakistan bureau chief who also oversees the Kabul bureau, to tell them he'd be filing reports. "Folks, let me know who will be on the deck tomorrow morning," he wrote. "I will have feed." Siddiqui made no mention of the plan to join a combat mission to Spin Boldak.

At 11.04 pm on Thursday, July 15, Siddiqui sent a message to Asia pictures editor Masood in Singapore: 'Leave Base.' That was the signal Siddiqui was off. He was riding with Major Sadiq Karzai, who was commanding the Spin Boldak assault, according to the Special Forces.

Dozens of Humvees had left the base with the objective of retaking Spin Boldak, Siddiqui told Peshimam in a message at 5.09 am the following morning. At 6.33 am, Siddiqui called Peshimam from an Afghan number. They spoke for four minutes. Siddiqui told him they were expecting "contact" – to encounter Taliban forces – in the next few minutes.

A cache of 350 pictures from Siddiqui's camera, which was recovered by Reuters, record his journey through a dusty, overcast landscape.

At 7.03 am, Siddiqui passed an abandoned police truck, its front right tire blown out. He was some 12 kilometres from Spin Boldak, at a pass between two rocky outcrops. Known as Wat Mountain, in peacetime the place is a popular picnic spot.

At 7.30 am Siddiqui sent a voice message to Peshimam, reporting heavy fighting. A minute later, his vehicle reached a roadblock. A series of 97 frames over 10 seconds show puffs of smoke from the impact of rockets and gunfire. Orange tracer rounds from a machine gun strike a building on his left.

As the commandos take cover, Siddiqui appears to dismount from his vehicle to follow the action. The last picture, at 7.34 am, shows a commando crouching behind a wall and launching an RPG. Analysis of satellite imagery and a map reference provided by Special Forces indicate Siddiqui was 2.1 kilometers from the centre of Spin Boldak. The military identified the spot as the Shanaki petrol station and mosque complex.

At 7.41 am, Siddiqui sent a voice message to Masood. There was the sound of heavy gunfire. Siddiqui is heard saying to another person, "What is it, RPG?" A minute later, another voice message. "Masood, I've been hit."

The two spoke on the phone three minutes later. Siddiqui told Masood he had been hit by shrapnel on the back of his left arm. He passed the phone to one of the members of the unit, who assured Masood the wound was superficial.

"We are pulling him out," the man said.

At 7.53 am, Siddiqui spoke to a photojournalist colleague in Kabul, telling him he was sheltering in a mosque.

At 7.59 am, Siddiqui shared his live location with Masood via a tracking feature on his smartphone. At 8.01 am, in his last message, the photographer replied to a question from Masood asking how his injury was. "Just painful," he said.

Over the next hour, Siddiqui's phone signal moved slowly from Spin Boldak along the main road towards Kandahar. Peshimam, Masood and the colleague in Kabul all tried calling Siddiqui at intervals, without any response. Siddiqui's tracking signal stopped at 9.06 am at Wat Mountain.

Around 10 am, Masood and the colleague in Kabul separately got through on Siddiqui's phone. But they grew alarmed, because in both cases it wasn't Siddiqui who picked up. It was a stranger who identified himself as a shopkeeper before hanging up.

Masood arranged a conference call with editors and operations managers to explain what had happened. During that call, another Reuters photographer in Kabul messaged Masood with pictures circulating on social media. Masood knew immediately the man in the photos was Siddiqui.

"Oh god, he has been killed," he said. There was silence.

Conflicting accounts

According to first reports, Siddiqui had been killed in the bazaar at Spin Boldak. But the records of Siddiqui's phone tracker, accounts from the commander of Afghan Special Forces, Taliban, other local security officials, and photos and videos posted on social media give a fuller picture, albeit with many key details still uncertain.

Alizai, the Special Forces commander, told Reuters his commandos, supported by other Afghan security forces, had advanced that morning to the petrol-and-mosque complex where Siddiqui took his last pictures. The troops had air support available.

Based on communications at the time and interviews with commandos when they returned to base, Alizai said he concluded that Siddiqui took shelter in the mosque where he was treated for his shrapnel injury by a Special Forces medic, and accompanied by Karzai.

As Siddiqui was being evacuated, the Taliban launched a new attack and all government units were forced to withdraw. A police commander who was nearby at the time gave Reuters a similar account. At this point, Alizai said, his men lost communication with Karzai, Siddiqui and the medic. They mistakenly thought all three had jumped aboard one of the retreating vehicles.

Four other Special Force members interviewed by Reuters confirmed Alizai's account that Siddiqui and the two soldiers had been left behind in a hasty retreat. One senior officer, a deputy commander of the operation, said the Taliban had attacked the location from three sides. "The fighting was so strong that we did not know where Danish was," he said.

After a gunner in Karzai's Humvee was hit by a mortar round, everyone started to pull out. A driver of another Humvee said he heard urgent shouts to Karzai to rejoin the vehicles. But at that moment, the driver said, the Taliban closed in and Siddiqui, Karzai and the medic were shot as they tried to run to the retreating vehicles. "I saw it with my own eyes," he said. Believing they were dead, this driver pulled out, too.

Alizai said one of his officers then managed to get through to Karzai's phone. He said it was answered by someone identifying himself as a Taliban fighter, who said, "You're bringing Indians to fight against us." The officer replied, "Don't shoot him. He's a journalist." "We already killed that guy," the fighter answered. There was no further contact.

Alizai said he believes Taliban fighters may have picked up Siddiqui's phone and taken it with them as they pursued the Special Forces to Wat Mountain, where the Taliban stopped and established defensive lines.

Reuters was unable to independently determine if the Taliban deliberately killed Siddiqui or desecrated his body. Siddiqui's family said it believes that he was brutally murdered and his body mutilated.

"We reiterate our demand that the matter should be pursued to bring the perpetrators of this horrific crime to justice," the statement by the family said.

At 9.40 am, 34 minutes after Siddiqui's tracking signal stopped, the first pictures of his body were posted on Twitter. Photos of captured Humvees followed minutes later. At 10.24 am, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid posted on Twitter a video of the same location where Siddiqui's phone tracker stopped – identifiable by the outcrops and three large radio masts – stating Taliban fighters had "crushed" government forces in a clash there.

Contacted later for this article, Zabihullah said that after heavy fighting around Spin Boldak town, the Taliban mounted an ambush of Afghan Special Forces on the road back towards Kandahar, capturing three Humvees and destroying two others, plus a pickup truck. That fighting, too, was heavy, he said, involving over 100 armoured cars and pickups. The "largest ambush by us" was in the Wat Mountain area, he said.

"We don't know exactly where Danish was killed, but we recognised his body when we found three bodies lying by the roadside." He was identified as a journalist by a "PRESS" marking on his jacket. The other two casualties were the Afghan soldiers who were with Siddiqui: Karzai and the medic, identified by the Afghan military only as Abass.

Zabihullah denied reports that Siddiqui was captured and executed, as well as claims by the Afghan security forces and Indian government officials that his body was desecrated.

"It is completely wrong that Danish was first injured then he was captured and then killed, so I reject this information. It is completely wrong," he said.

"We once again say that this death happened on a battlefield. We can't say whose bullet hit Danish Siddiqui, and we had no prior information about him being in the area."

On Sunday, July 18, bureau staff gathered up Siddiqui's possessions in Kabul. His room there was left as any journalist in a hurry might leave it. Clothes and a towel lay on his unmade bed. Nearby were Bounty chocolate bars and cookies, a stab-resistant vest and a small suitcase containing his spare camera. Four weeks later, the Taliban occupied the capital.