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Italy's PM under Fire in Paid-For Release of Journalist


The Italian government is in the midst of a firestorm over how it deals with hostage crises after the Taleban on Easter Sunday killed the interpreter who shared an Italian journalist's captivity last month. But Prime Minister Romano Prodi defended his government's tactics to free Italian hostages. Sabina Castelfranco has this VOA report from Rome.

The killing by the Taleban of Adjmal Nashkbandi in Afghanistan has caused a huge backlash in Italy. The interpreter was the second Afghan working with La Repubblica journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo to be killed. Mastrogiacomo, who was held hostage from March 5 to 19, witnessed the beheading of his driver, Sayed Hagha, on March 16.

The Italian journalist was the only one of the three to be released in a prisoner swap that raised eyebrows at home and among Italy's NATO allies.

In the deal, Afghan President Karzai agreed to release from jail five Taleban militants in exchange for Mastrogiacomo's freedom.

Gino Strada, founder of the aid group Emergency, which helped mediate the journalist's freedom, accuses Prime Minister Romano Prodi of doing too little to save the interpreter. Strada branded the Italian government an accomplice in his death.

But the prime minister rejected Strada's criticism, saying Italy had done "everything possible" for Nashkbandi.

"We really did everything we could, what a government must do," said Prodi.

Strada has also been appealing for the release of an Emergency worker, Rahmatullah Hanefi, who has been involved in negotiating the release of Italian hostages. Hanefi is believed to be in Afghan custody following the release of the Italian journalist.

The Afghan government claims Hanefi is linked to the Taleban and helped organize Mastrogiacomo's kidnapping.

But Strada disagreed, saying Italy knows that Hanefi is trustworthy. He then went on to give an example of Hanefi's trustworthiness that subsequently stirred up a political couldron.

He said that Hanefi, in the case of a prior kidnapping in November of an Italian photographer, took a $2 million ransom paid by Italy and went to collect the freed hostage after handing over the money. The photographer has said he was not aware that Italy paid for his release.

Prodi did not deny the claim of the ransom. He also defended the negotiations that led to the release of Mastrogiacomo and said his interpreter was to have been freed at the same time.

He stressed Italy's priority has always been to save human lives, and added that the mediator's fate rested entirely in the hands of President Karzai.

Meanwhile, Strada's claims of the ransom paid in November and the killing of the interpreter have prompted some opposition lawmakers to request that the Prodi government brief parliament on the matter. Others have called for a commission of inquiry and some went as far as to call for an impeachment of the prime minister.

Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema has said he is prepared to see a parliamentary inquiry into hostage policy -- provided it covers the previous Berlusconi government's own handling of hostage-taking in Iraq. At least four Italians were released in Iraq amid claims that heavy ransom was paid.

Strada, meanwhile, has threatened to leave Afghanistan -- where Emergency runs three hospitals and 30 other facilities -- unless Hanefi is freed by the Afghan government.

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