Berlusconi signals shift in 'hostages' policy

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The Independent Online

Any Italians rash enough to go walkabout in Iraq are now on their own, prime minister Silvio Berlusconi told the Senate yesterday, in his first official pronouncement on the killing of Nicola Calipari last Friday.

Any Italians rash enough to go walkabout in Iraq are now on their own, prime minister Silvio Berlusconi told the Senate yesterday, in his first official pronouncement on the killing of Nicola Calipari last Friday.

"The Italian government is in a position to guarantee the security only of those...who operate in close co-operation and under the protection of our military contingent," he said. "It is not possible to do so for those who venture, even for the most noble and sincere reasons, in other regions of Iraq where the presence of terrorists is still high and where the risk of attacks and abductions is greater."

It was a guarded statement, but it signalled a clear change of policy. Since the abduction of four Italian security guards last year, one of whom was murdered but three of whom were later released unharmed, Italy has pursued the bold and lonely strategy of negotiating with hostages and paying them huge ransoms.

A policy conducted personally by Berlusconi and his close adviser Gianni Letta working directly with military intelligence, it has paid dividends in terms of personal popularity for the prime minister.

Its finest moment came last September when two voluntary workers in Baghdad, Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, were brought home after three weeks in captivity, to a tumultuous welcome. But the killing by American fire of chief negotiator Nicola Calipari has brought home to the Italians the hazards and political costs of the policy.

Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini admitted to Parliament on Tuesday that the Italians had not informed the Americans at Camp Victory in Baghdad Airport that they were bringing the freed hostage Giuliana Sgrena out of captivity.

Italy avoided sharing sensitive information about its hostage negotiations with the Americans lest the latter decided to intervene. Likewise the need for discretion meant that Calipari and his secret service colleague were obliged to move around Baghdad in an unprotected car with Iraqi number plates, and without an armed escort.

As confirmed by Berlusconi yesterday, the inquiry into Mr Calipari's killing by the US will be completed within four weeks. And in what the prime minister called an "unprecedented" concession, the US has invited high-level participation from the Italian armed forces and diplomatic service.

Mr Berlusconi told the Senate, "Italy has never submitted to political blackmail by the hostage-takers" - in other words it had refused the frequent demand that Italy withdraw its troops. Italy's success in freeing hostages, he said, was because "the government activated all channels, political, diplomatic and intelligence."

He was unable to admit that Italy has been paying huge ransoms - up to $8 million, it is claimed, for the freedom last week of Giuliana Sgrena - because as his justice minister pointed out on Tuesday, paying ransom is a criminal offence in Italy.

He insisted that America must identify who was to blame for the killing of Mr Calipari. "Only a frank and reciprocal recognition of eventual responsibility is the condition for closure of the incident...that caused so much sorrow," he said.

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