Italian peace force tortured Somalis

During the Gulf War, the joke about the Italian contingent in Operation Desert Storm was that they were providing the ice-cream trucks. In Gabriele Salvatore's film Mediterraneo, the Italian troops invading Greece are portrayed as warm-hearted young fellows who want nothing more than to play football with the locals.

For 50 years, the post-war generation in Italy has liked to think of its armed forces as "brava gente", nice guys who will stop at nothing to help old ladies and children in trouble but probably don't have the stomach for the brutal business of war. This weekend, that myth has been shattered by horrifying photographs published in two news magazines that tell a singularly nasty story about Italian paratroopers attached to the UN peace mission to Somalia in 1993.

Young Somalis are shown stripped naked, beaten and wired up with electrodes attached to their testicles. Somali prisoners are shown being hooded and tied up before having cigarette butts stubbed out on their naked flesh.

One former paratrooper who sold the most graphic photos to Panorama magazine, Michele Patruno, says such mistreatment of Somalis was, for a time, routine in his regiment, the Folgore, one of the most famous in Italy. Prisoners were denied all food and drink except hot peppers, beaten, burned and electrocuted. On patrols, the men from Folgore would vandalise families' water supply and destroy the house if they found so much as a single bullet inside.

What began as a paranoid fear of clan violence turned into "pure sadism", Mr Patruno said. Prisoners were even thrown against razor wire for the amusement of their captors. Mr Patruno said he had heard of about five or six deaths as a direct result of torture.

The revelations have acted like a bombshell in Italy, prompting a number of judicial and internal investigations and one call by a small government party to disband the Folgore regiment. The Folgore has a reputation for lingering pro- Fascist tendencies, which in turn have caused concern about its present involvement in the Italian-led mission in Albania.

The Somalis have reacted energetically to the scandal, opening law suits on 43 cases of alleged human rights violations, including 11 murders and 19 instances of torture. Interviewed in Mogadishu by Agence France Presse, one garage owner called Ahmed Mo-ah Mohammed described being hooded, tortured and thumped with sandbags by the Italians. "They used me like an ashtray," he said, showing the burn marks still visible on his body.