Italians held over 'plot' to assassinate Afghan chief

Helmand governor claims NGO employees planned to murder him in hospital.
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Police in the Helmand province of Afghanistan have arrested three Italian aid workers for allegedly plotting to assassinate the provincial governor. The Italians were seized during a raid on a hospital run by Emergency, an Italian NGO, in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. Six Afghan colleagues were also arrested.

Government officials claimed the arrested workers were in league with the Taliban and planned to murder Helmand's governor, Gulab Mangal, on a future visit to the hospital. Police and secret-service agents acting on a tip-off said they had recovered suicide vests, hand grenades, pistols and explosives from a storeroom. Under questioning, a hospital janitor implicated others at the hospital, who in turn pointed to the Italians.

The 200-bed hospital is situated a few hundred metres down the road from the governor's compound and has attracted criticism in the past for treating war-wounded patients even if there are suspicions they may be insurgents. In 2007, mass resignations followed the detention of the hospital director.

"The plan was to carry out two attacks in Lashkar Gah, either in a densely populated area or at a picnic site in the outskirts of the city which would of course inflict heavy casualties," Mr Mangal, who has survived four assassination attempts, claimed. As casualties streamed into the hospital, run by Italian NGO Emergency, the plotters were going to detonate a second bomb inside, he said.

"An Emergency foreign staff member received $500,000 (£325,000) as an advance for killing me," he added. As details of the arrest emerged, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets chanting: "Death to Emergency!"

However, the arrests drew a sharp rebuke from the charity's leadership in Milan, which called the charge "simply groundless". Its director, Gino Strada, launched a sweeping attack on provincial officials for fabricating the allegations. "They want to get rid of a troublesome witness," Mr Strada said. "Emergency shows the results of the so-called war on terrorism. 40 per cent of the wounded are children under the age of 14. We had asked for a humanitarian corridor to evacuate the wounded, but they put up a security cordon that does not let them reach hospitals.

"Until recently we managed to treat the wounded because international conventions were respected. Today this is no longer possible," he added. "Who with a grain of salt in his head could think that an Italian doctor would go to Afghanistan to blow up the governor of a province? It all seems grotesque to me."

In a statement on its website, the NGO added: "We still have not been able to reach [the arrested workers] by phone. The only contact we have been able to make has been through one of the employee's cell phones answered by someone who identified himself as a British military official. This person notified us that the Italians were well, but unavailable to speak at the time."

A spokesman for the British military in Helmand said: "The arrests were made by the Afghan security forces and then a short time after, Governor Mangal asked if Isaf forces could assist his Afghan security forces, to secure the hospital, to basically make the explosive found inside safe, and then allow the Afghans to glean what information they could from them. The important thing is the Isaf forces were not there when the arrest were made. They arrived afterwards and at the request of Governor Mangal."