ROME – Italy’s strategy of negotiating the release of Taliban militants in exchange for the freedom of an Italian hostage in Afghanistan has placed Premier Romano Prodi in the firing line days before a crucial parliamentary vote on keeping the country’s troops in Afghanistan.
The move has drawn the ire of the conservative opposition — whose backing might be necessary in the Senate vote next week — and the criticism of Italy’s allies in the U.S. and Europe. It also rekindled long-standing questions over Rome’s handling of hostage situations.
A deputy foreign affairs minister said the Afghan government freed five Taliban prisoners to win the release of La Repubblica reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo, who had been captured two weeks earlier. His remarks during a Senate address Wednesday were repeated by another senior official before the lower house of parliament.
The controversy overshadowed Italy’s joy over Mastrogiacomo’s release. While criticism came mainly from the conservative opposition, some within Prodi’s ranks also expressed unease.
Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi — who himself came under scrutiny amid unconfirmed allegations his government paid ransoms to free Italians abducted in
Iraq — said: “We Italians are by now considered unreliable by our own allies.”
A Defense Ministry official shot back that the opposition had given “carte blanche to do everything possible” to free Mastrogiacomo, and that to voice criticism now “was too easy.”
“For us, relations with the United States are fundamental, one of the pillars of Italian foreign policy,” Defense Undersecretary Lorenzo Forcieri told Italian state radio.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States did not approve of the deal, which could have unintended consequences.
“Our views are …very clear: We don’t negotiate with terrorists; we don’t advise others to do so as well,” McCormack said. “The concern I think is obvious, in that you have individuals who are potentially quite dangerous who have been released from prison.”
Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema, who confirmed he spoke Thursday with Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice, said he did not regret that a life had been saved.
“We are grateful to the Afghan government,” D’Alema said on Italian television. “But honestly it is difficult to accuse the Italian government of having negotiated with or having freed terrorists.”
Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia, and other opposition parties are threatening to vote against a government decree that provides funding for Italian missions abroad, including for the country’s 2,000 troops in Afghanistan.
The conservatives’ support might be crucial because Prodi has a one-seat majority in the Senate and some radical leftists are opposed to the mission — and have already caused the government to fall briefly on foreign policy weeks ago.
In a remark certain to worry hard-line leftists, D’Alema noted recently that “guerrilla warfare is about to reach Herat,” where Italy has some of its troops.
A Cabinet minister, Emma Bonino, voiced concerns over the price paid to obtain Mastrogiacomo’s freedom, saying the release of the Taliban militants “with a bloody past creates problems.” Bonino, who belongs to a small pro-U.S. party, noted that
NATO troops may soon find themselves fighting against the freed Taliban.
Sharper criticism came from Washington, adding more friction to relations already strained by recent indictments of a U.S. soldier for the slaying of an Italian intelligence agent in Baghdad and of 26 Americans accused of kidnapping an Egyptian terrorist suspect in Milan as part of the
CIA’s extraordinary rendition program.
U.S. diplomats told their Italian counterparts in Rome and Washington that the swap raised serious safety concerns and increased the risk of kidnappings in Afghanistan, a senior State Department official said Wednesday.
Such a reaction was “unexpected,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Pasquale Ferrara said Thursday, but insisted the cooperation between Rome and Washington was not in jeopardy.
Washington’s comment — echoed in some European capitals — came just days after D’Alema flew to the United States for a meeting with Rice and an address to the
U.N. Security Council on Afghanistan. D’Alema pitched the idea of an international conference on Afghanistan — a theme dear to the radicals within Prodi’s coalition but mostly received with skepticism abroad.
“This affair is creating some unexpected difficulties in foreign affairs for Prodi,” said Franco Pavoncello, a political science professor at Rome’s John Cabot University. “There has been a certain impression abroad that the Prodi government does not seem very reliable,” he said. “This seems to be more of the same.”