5 Taliban Prisoners Freed In Exchange For Kidnapped Italian Journalist

Wednesday, March 21st 2007, 8:17 pm
By: News On 6

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ Italy's deputy foreign affairs minister confirmed Wednesday that the Afghan government released five Taliban prisoners to win the freedom of a reporter who had been kidnapped in lawless Helmand province.

Daniele Mastrogiacomo, who writes for Italy's La Repubblica newspaper, was freed Monday after two weeks in captivity. He had been seized with his Afghan driver, who was beheaded, and his translator, whose whereabouts are unknown.

Though the Afghan government called the swap ``an exceptional case,'' the deal was sharply criticized.

``When we create situations where you can buy the freedom of Taliban fighters when you catch a journalist, in the short term there will be no journalists anymore,'' the Dutch foreign minister, Maxime Verhagen, said during a visit to Kabul on Wednesday.

In Washington, a senior State Department official said the United States was pleased the journalist had been released unharmed, but was troubled by possible ramifications of the swap.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to address the media, said U.S. diplomats told Italian counterparts in Rome and Washington that the trade raised serious safety concerns and increased the risk of kidnappings in Afghanistan.

Among other issues, the official said five Taliban operatives were now free to resume extremist activities and that their release could encourage further abduction.

The official also denied Italian claims that the United States had been consulted about the conditions of the journalist's release.

Nancy Beck, a State Department spokeswoman, would say only that ``it is U.S. policy not to make concessions to terrorist demands.''

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's spokesman has said the exchange came about after Karzai told authorities to find a solution to the kidnapping, citing Afghanistan's good relations with Italy.

``If things are done to save a human life ... this is a positive thing,'' Mastrogiacomo said Wednesday when asked about the controversy surrounding his release.

``I believe that what has been done doesn't violate the sovereignty of a state or the autonomy of its foreign policy decisions,'' he said, referring to both Italy and Afghanistan.

Mullah Abdul Rahim, a purported Taliban commander in Helmand province, told The Associated Press last week that the Taliban wanted at least two men released _ Mohammad Hanif, a Taliban spokesman captured by Afghan officials in January; and Hanif's predecessor, Mullah Hakim Latifi, who was arrested in 2005 in Pakistan.

The exchange may have a lasting negative effect on reporters' willingness to take risks, and the Taliban might turn to kidnapping government officials, thinking of the high price they can exact, said Mohammad Qassim Akhgar, a political analyst who works on human rights issues in Afghanistan.

Akhgar said he doubts it was the first time concessions have been made to free a hostage in Afghanistan, but that the terms agreed to this time were more significant.

``Maybe the enemy will realize the great benefit they gained from this deal, and tomorrow even the reporters in Kabul won't be safe,'' Akhgar said. ``This is not good. The government can't let the enemy use this strategy.''

In an account of his kidnapping, Mastrogiacomo wrote in La Repubblica on Tuesday that he traveled to Helmand to see the situation in southern Afghanistan firsthand. ``This has always been my way of working _ seeing with my eyes, listening and then telling'' the story, he wrote.

Mastrogiacomo has said he watched his captors cut off his driver's head, then wipe the knife on the man's clothes. The reporter said he was struck in his back and head with an AK-47 during his capture, but was not hurt at any other time.

Reporters Without Borders, an international media rights group, said it was ``deeply relieved'' Mastrogiacomo had been freed but that it was ``regrettable'' the release came only after the driver's death and the release of prisoners.

``We call on the Taliban leaders ... to once and for all abandon attacks on the press and kidnappings of journalists, which are contrary to humanitarian law,'' the group said in a statement.

The reporter's kidnapping came only four months after another Italian journalist _ freelance photographer Gabriele Torsello _ was kidnapped and held for three weeks in the exact same region, Helmand province.

Torsello's kidnappers had asked for the withdrawal of Italy's 1,800 troops from Afghanistan and for the return of Abdul Rahman, an Afghan who faced the death penalty in Afghanistan for converting to Christianity who was granted asylum in Italy.

Italy's ambassador said neither of those demands were met, but when asked in November if a ransom had been paid for Torsello, Sequi said only that he ``did not think'' one had been.