Boy free after kidnap ordeal

AN EIGHT-year-old boy was flown to Paris yesterday to recover from a six-month ordeal at the hands of kidnappers on the Italian island of Sardinia. Farouk Kassam's head had been shaved and a bandage covered his right ear, part of which was cut off and sent to his family in an envelope last month. He had been held in remote island caves and forests.

Italian justice officials denied press speculation that the boy's family had paid around one-third of a pounds 3m ransom demanded by the kidnappers. The gang had let Farouk go as 300 police closed in on their mountain hideout, the officials insisted.

But one of the country's most notorious convicted criminals, Graziano Mesina, 64 - dubbed 'The Scarlet Rose' - told reporters he had helped free the Canadian-born son of an Arab Belgian hotelier, but did not explain his role.

The kidnappers had threatened to 'cut him (Farouk) up into little pieces, bit by bit' if his father, Ali Fateh Kassam, did not come up with the ransom. Mr Kassam's assets were said to have been frozen, in line with Italian law, to prevent him from dealing with the kidnappers.

Farouk was seized in his pyjamas from his home on Sardinia's Emerald Coast on 15 January. His father had promised him a Paris holiday in a message broadcast on Italian television, in which he called on his son to 'be strong and practise your multiplication tables'. Yesterday, he was able to honour that promise.

The Italian government was on the point of sending 4,000 crack commandos to the Mediterranean island in the hope of flushing out the kidnap gang and freeing the boy. A police raid on Tuesday night last week just missed capturing the gang, which had been moving Farouk from cave to cave.

Farouk's plight had gripped all of Italy. Millions of people last month hung white sheets over their balconies in protest against the abduction.

A note from the boy to an Italian magazine, in which he pleaded 'Help me, mummy', tugged at the heart-strings of a nation nearly numbed by dozens of child kidnappings since the war. On Easter Day, Farouk's mother made an emotional appeal in her local church for Sardinians to end their traditional code of silence over Mafia activities.

Mesina, in and out of jail for the past half century, was mysteriously allowed out of detention in northern Italy last week and surfaced in Sardinia, ostensibly on humanitarian parole to visit his sister.

'It's true. I was involved,' he told reporters. But he failed to explain whether his involvement had been merely at the mediation stage. 'I can't say any more. I'm surrounded by policemen,' he said.

The scourge of Sardinia in the post-war years, Mesina later won a certain cult status. He once kidnapped a child but, saying he was overwhelmed by remorse, freed him hours later with money to buy chocolate on the way home.