Red Cross saved hostages by treating insurgents

Maurizio Scelli, the outgoing head of Italy's Red Cross, told La Stampa newspaper that with the explicit approval of the office of Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister, he had agreed to treat four critically wounded Iraqi "terrorists" in the Italian Red Cross's hospital in Baghdad. "Keeping the Americans in the dark was an essential condition for guaranteeing the safety of the hostages and ourselves," he said. "I kept to this ... and under-secretary Gianni Letta also agreed to it when we discussed it with him."

Mr Letta is Mr Berlusconi's security adviser and one of his closest confidants.

Mr Scelli told the newspaper how on 23 September last year he was working for the release of "the two Simonas", Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, volunteers abducted from their Baghdad office. The same day there was a claim on an Islamist website that the two women had been killed because Mr Berlusconi had failed to withdraw Italy's troops from Iraq.

But then Mr Scelli heard two messages on the voicemail of his mobile phone: the voices of the Simonas, one after the other, denying the internet claim and insisting that they were still alive. He said that on hearing the messages he heaved a sigh of relief: it meant that his efforts for the women's release were still on track. "The mediators had asked us to save the lives of four presumed terrorists whom the Americans were looking for and who had been wounded in combat," he said.

Mr Letta had been dubious about his offer to try to negotiate the release of the two Simonas, he said, until he heard the messages. "On receiving the second message I went to see Letta. He listened to it then said, go ahead, saying nothing to anybody." He went on: "It wasn't an easy task: in our Baghdad hospital we had the doctors and other personnel ready to operate, but we had to bring in the wounded without the Americans finding out.

"There were two American checkpoints outside the hospital. We had to trick them. We dispatched an ambulance and a Jeep, officially to deliver medicines. In reality it was a way of collecting the wounded men. Hidden under covers and boxes of drugs, the four terrorists - three in a desperate state - were operated on and saved by the Red Cross."

Patrick Cockburn, who has reported for The Independent in Iraq, confirmed the plausibility of Mr Scelli's account. "Iraqi rebels keep out of government hospitals, or if they are there the doctors deny their presence," he said. "If you are a young man with bullet wounds in an ordinary Iraqi hospital, you are vulnerable to being picked up by American soldiers or Iraqi police."

Mr Scelli said another agreed condition for the release of the Simonas was that four Iraqi children suffering from leukaemia were treated in Italy.

Mr Berlusconi's office rejected Mr Scelli's claims of government complicity in hoodwinking the Americans. It said: "The [Italian] government ... has never conditioned or influenced [Red Cross] operations, which are carried out in full autonomy."

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