The families of British construction worker Chris McManus and an Italian hostage had paid £1million to secure their release, it was claimed last night.
Reports in the Italian media claimed the money was a down payment on a £4million ransom demand by terrorists in Sokoto who executed Mr McManus and colleague Franco Lamolinara during a daring raid by the Special Boat Service.
There was no indication as to whether Mr McManus’s family had paid the money themselves.
There were also said to be high hopes his colleague Mr McManus, 28, from Oldham, Greater Manchester, would be freed, too.
According to Italian reports, members of Mr Lamolinara’s family were in Rome last Tuesday to view a video that had found its way into the hands of intelligence chiefs.
The tape showed the men, who were kidnapped at gunpoint from their Kebbi apartment last May.
Two days later, an unsuccessful mission by the SBS and Nigerian special forces resulted in both hostages being shot dead by their captors after a gun battle at the kidnap gang’s hideout.
Senior British Government sources said last night that there had been no ‘coherent’ ransom demand from the terrorists.
Turin-based La Stampa newspaper reported that negotiations had been taking place for the release of the Italian hostage through contacts in the west African state of Mauritania.
Another report last night said that Mauritanian businessman and politician Moustafa Ould Imam Chafi had been at the centre of the negotiations.
Italian news reports said an autopsy on Mr Lamolinara, whose body was flown back to Rome yesterday, found that he was shot in the head three or four times at close range.
British officials have insisted that Prime Minister David Cameron had no choice but to order the rescue bid on Thursday morning after intelligence reports revealed that Mr McManus and Mr Lamolinara were about to be moved, or possibly executed by their hard-line captors from the Al Qaeda-linked group Boko Haram.
But a friend of the dead Italian’s family, local politician Carlo Riva Vercoletti, told The Mail on Sunday: ‘Franco’s wife Anna was hopeful this would soon be over. They had maintained a dignified silence at the request of the Italian Foreign Ministry because they were told things were in hand.
‘They were convinced Franco was on his way home but instead it has ended in the most tragic of ways. They were in Rome a few days ago to see a video of Franco.
‘It had given them more hope that he and his British colleague would soon be free, but 48 hours later that hope was extinguished.’
A source close to the Lamolinara family, from Gattinara near Vercelli, North-West Italy, said: ‘The understanding was that a deal with the kidnappers was at a very advanced stage and Franco would be home by Easter.’
The previously undisclosed talks were said to have been revealed by an Al Qaeda defector, who claimed negotiations had been held with officials from Britain and Italy through middlemen.
The Mauritanian news agency ANI said the former Al Qaeda operative was close to the kidnappers.
He claimed the gang had contacted family members of the men to secure payment and ensure their safe release. Unlike Britain, Italy has a policy of negotiating with terrorists holding hostages.
According to the former Al Qaeda informant, negotiations were at an ‘advanced stage’ and the kidnappers had offered to reduce the ransom for the two men.
The unnamed man said the group was not interested in the release of jailed comrades but ‘just the cash’.
He claimed an initial payment of £1million had been made after a ‘long and protracted series of talks’.
The balance of the £4million had been due to change hands shortly after which the hostages would have been released.
The body of Mr McManus was flown home from Lagos to Heathrow yesterday.
A Government source said last night: ‘There was never a coherent demand for money for the release of these hostages. We needed to act quickly once it became clear there was an imminent threat to life. It was a difficult decision, but the right one.’
A Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman in Rome said: ‘We don’t pay ransoms.’
Yesterday, more than 10,000 Oldham football fans stood in silent tribute to Mr McManus before the team he supported played Yeovil.