U.S. Slams Italy’s Deal With Taliban to Free Journalist

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Italy’s deputy foreign affairs minister confirmed Wednesday that the Afghan government released five Taliban prisoners to win the freedom of a reporter who had been kidnapped in lawless Helmand province.

Daniele Mastrogiacomo, who writes for Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, was freed Monday after two weeks in captivity. He had been seized in southern Helmand province with his Afghan driver, who was beheaded, and his translator, whose whereabouts are unknown.

Though the Afghan government called the swap “an exceptional case,” the deal was sharply criticized.

“When we create situations where you can buy the freedom of Taliban fighters when you catch a journalist, in the short term there will be no journalists anymore,” the Dutch foreign minister, Maxime Verhagen, said during a visit to Kabul on Wednesday.

In Washington, a senior State Department official said U.S. diplomats told their Italian counterparts in Rome and Washington that the trade raised serious safety concerns and increased the risk of kidnappings in Afghanistan. The official also denied Italian claims that the U.S. had been consulted about the conditions of the journalist’s release.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to address the media.

When asked whether it’s the first time hostages have been traded for prisoners in Iraq or Afghanistan, State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper said, “I don’t have any idea. You’re talking about actions by multiple states.”

“The United States have never done it,” Cooper added.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s spokesman has said the exchange came about after Karzai told authorities to find a solution to the kidnapping, citing Afghanistan’s good relations with Italy.

“If things are done to save a human life… this is a positive thing,” Mastrogiacomo said Wednesday when asked about the controversy surrounding his release.

“I believe that what has been done doesn’t violate the sovereignty of a state or the autonomy of its foreign policy decisions,” he said, referring to both Italy and Afghanistan.

Ugo Intini, the Italian deputy foreign affairs minister, said in Rome the five militants were handed over to Emergency, an Italian aid group that had served as a mediator in the negotiations to win Mastrogiacomo’s release.

Mullah Abdul Rahim, a purported Taliban commander in Helmand province, told The Associated Press last week that the Taliban wanted at least two men released ? Mohammad Hanif, a Taliban spokesman captured by Afghan officials in January; and Hanif’s predecessor, Mullah Hakim Latifi, who was arrested in 2005 in Pakistan.

The exchange may have a lasting negative effect on reporters’ willingness to take risks, and the Taliban might turn to kidnapping government officials for ransom, said Mohammad Qassim Akhgar, a political analyst who works on human rights issues in Afghanistan.

Akhgar said he doubts it was the first time concessions have been made to free a hostage in Afghanistan, but that the terms agreed to this time were more significant.

“Maybe the enemy will realize the great benefit they gained from this deal, and tomorrow even the reporters in Kabul won’t be safe,” Akhgar said. “This is not good. The government can’t let the enemy use this strategy.”

In an account of his kidnapping, Mastrogiacomo wrote in La Repubblica on Tuesday that he travelled to Helmand to see the situation in southern Afghanistan firsthand. “This has always been my way of working ? seeing with my eyes, listening and then telling” the story, he wrote.

Mastrogiacomo has said he watched his captors cut off his driver’s head, then wipe the knife on the man’s clothes. The reporter said he was struck in his back and head with an AK-47 during his capture, but was not hurt at any other time.

Reporters Without Borders, an international media rights group, said it was “deeply relieved” Mastrogiacomo had been freed but that it was “regrettable” the release came only after the driver’s death and the release of prisoners.

“We call on the Taliban leaders… to once and for all abandon attacks on the press and kidnappings of journalists, which are contrary to humanitarian law,” the group said in a statement.

The reporter’s kidnapping came only four months after another Italian journalist ? freelance photographer Gabriele Torsello ? was kidnapped and held for three weeks in the same region.

Torsello’s kidnappers had asked for the withdrawal of Italy’s 1,800 troops from Afghanistan and for the return of Abdul Rahman, an Afghan who faced the death penalty in Afghanistan for converting to Christianity who was granted asylum in Italy.

Italy’s ambassador said neither of those demands were met, but when asked in November if a ransom had been paid for Torsello, Sequi said only that he “did not think” one had been.

Italy’s former Premier Silvio Berlusconi was believed by many at home and abroad to have paid ransoms in the past to secure the release of Italian hostages in Iraq. Berlusconi’s government denied the allegations, but some lawmakers have indicated money might have changed hands.

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