Around American Troops, even freed hostages aren't safe

Friday March 4, 09:16 PM
Freed Italian hostage 'wounded', negotiator killed, by US fire: Berlusconi

ROME (AFP) - Italian hostage Giuliana Sgrena was freed from her Iraqi captors only to be shot and wounded by US troops firing at the convoy carrying her to safety, Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said.

An Italian secret service agent who help secure Sgrena's release was killed when he threw himself in front of her to protect her from the incoming bullets, said Berlusconi, adding his government had called in to US ambassador to Rome, Mel Sembler, to explain the shooting.

The US military confirmed they shot at the convoy moving at high speed at a checkpoint manned by US coalition forces near Baghdad airport, and said the incident was under investigation.

The prime minister, a staunch ally of US President George W. Bush, told a press conference in Rome there were "disquieting questions" that needed to be answered about the incident.

"Several shots hit the car. One man was mortally wounded by a bullet. We are petrified and dumbfounded by this fatality."

"The incident, which has unfortunately been confirmed, happened very close to the airport," said Berlusconi.

"Ms Sgrena has said she is okay and has been treated. Then she underwent a small surgery to extract shrapnel," the prime minister said.

He said the dead agent had thrown his body in front of Sgrena to protect her from the gunfire.

"It is a pity. This was a joyful moment which made all our co-citizens happy, which has been transformed into profound pain by the death of a person who behaved so bravely."

A US military official confirmed the shooting.

"At approximately 8:55 pm (1755 GMT), coalition forces ... fired on a vehicle approaching a checkpoint in Baghdad at a high rate of speed. The recently freed Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena was an occupant in the vehicle and was apparently injured," Lieutenant Colonel Mike Caldwell said, reading an official statement.

"The details are not clear at this point. Apparently, a second person in the automobile was killed. Ms. Sgrena is being treated by coalition medical personnel. The incident is under investigation."

Earlier Sgrena's newspaper, the Rome-based communist daily Il Manifesto, said the 56-year-old journalist had been taken to a US-run hospital for treatment for wounds to her shoulder, adding that her life was not in danger.

"There's little to say. The Americans nearly killer her," Sgrena's companion Pier Scolari was quoted as saying by the ANSA news agency.

The newspaper named the dead man as Nicola Calipari, saying he was hit while trying to protect Sgrena.

Il Manifesto's editor Gabriele Polo paid tribute to the Italian agent, crediting him with Sgrena's release.

"Nicola Calipari is the person we must thank most for Giuliana's release. Unfortunately, he was killed by American bullets," said Polo.

The journalist was kidnapped in Baghdad last month by an Iraqi group who called on Rome to withdraw its troops from Iraq.

News of the shooting dampened the mood at the Rome offices of the newspaper, where overjoyed staff were celebrating their colleague's release and preparing for her return.

Details of the release were not immediately clear.

News of the release, first carried in an unsourced report by Al-Jazeera television, was confirmed by Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who said he had been informed by Gianni Letta, the minister responsible for the Italian secret service.

"You' can't imagine my joy or emotion," said the 84-year-old Ciampi.

"I'm very moved and happy. The release of Giuliana Sgrena has given us women the most beautiful present for March 8," said Deputy Foreign Minister Margherita Boniver, referring to International Women's Day next Tuesday.

Sgrena, a 56-year-old veteran Middle East correspondent for the leftist daily Il Manifesto, was abducted February 4 after visiting a Baghdad mosque where refugees have been encamped since a devastating US-led assault on the city of Fallujah in November.

Sgrena was shown pleading for her life in a video released by her kidnappers two weeks after her kidnapping in Baghdad.

Sobbing and looking thinner, she delivered an impassioned message first in Italian, then in French to plead for her life, to beg Rome to withdraw its troops from Iraq and to warn all foreigners, including journalists, to stay away from Iraq.

Berlusconi's centre-right government rejected the plea, and within days used its majority to ensure the Italian Senate voted to extend the mission of Rome's 3,000 troops in Iraq.

A few days after the video was shown, an estimated half a million people marched in Rome to demand her release.

Sgrena has worked since 1988 for Il Manifesto, which opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq.


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