Libyan authorities in the capital, Tripoli, are holding an Italian medical doctor released by suspected Islamic extremists, as they investigate whether Rome paid ransom money for his freedom, VOA has learned.
The Italian foreign ministry announced Tuesday that 65-year-old Ignazio Scaravilli from Catania, Sicily, had been released by his kidnappers after five months of captivity and was in good health.
The ministry said he had been released a week ago but provided no details on why he had not been returned to Italy after gaining his freedom.
According to top-ranking security officers in the Libyan capital, Scaravilli was arrested at the Mitiga Air Force Base in Tripoli, which is now used as a civilian airport, as he was about to board a plane chartered by the Italian government on June 3.
Libyan security commanders, who declined to be named for this article because they do not have permission to talk with the media, said the Tripoli-run government decided to prevent Scaravilli from leaving when they learned a ransom may have been paid to the kidnappers.
Tripoli authorities had no knowledge of the ransom negotiations and did not approve any payment to the kidnappers, who abducted the doctor in January as he left a hospital near the capital, the security sources said.
“We had initially helped with negotiations,” said a Libyan security commander. “But then the Italians started to use an intermediary to talk with the kidnappers and we were not informed about the progress of the negotiations – nor did we give approval for a ransom payment.”
Mohammed Maazab, a member of the Tripoli-based government, one of Libya’s two rival governments that have been locked in a year-long power struggle, confirmed Scaravilli was being held, saying, “The Italians had not followed landing procedures to clear the chartered plane and it did not have landing rights.”
The plane landed, but Scaravilli was not allowed to board and the plane flew back to Italy without him.
Suspected IS link
A diplomat from another European country said the Italians are trying to keep the dispute under wraps.
“They don’t want to draw attention to the fact they paid a ransom to kidnappers who are suspected of being linked to the Islamic State,” the diplomat, who is based in neighboring Tunis, said.
The affiliate of the so-called Islamic State group, based in Syria and Iraq, has grown rapidly in Libya and its fighters last month seized the coastal city of Sirte.
Italy signed a 2013 international pledge to avoid paying ransoms to kidnappers.
At the G8 Summit held in Northern Ireland that year, the leaders of the top eight industrial nations expressed alarm at “the increasingly fragmented and geographically diverse threat posed by terrorist groups, including al-Qaida and its affiliates,” and at “the threat posed by kidnapping for ransom by terrorists,” they said in an official communiqué.
The G8 leaders also rejected “unequivocally … the payment of ransoms to terrorists.”
“Payments to terrorists from Sahel to the Horn of Africa helped fuel instability in the region, and contributed to large scale attacks,” the G8 leaders said in the communiqué, which warned that ransom money helps jihadists recruit and improve their operational capabilities.
The leaders of France, Italy, Canada and Germany all endorsed the no-ransom agreement, but all those countries are believed to have paid ransoms for their kidnapped citizens or provided tacit approval for payments made by businesses and NGOs, diplomats and security industry insiderssaid.
A U.N. resolution adopted after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks banned countries from financing terrorism, including through ransoms for their kidnapped citizens.
Keep no-ransom pledge
"They can talk all they like at the U.N., but the French, the Italians and the Poles among others will cough up,” said an American private security consultant who has been involved in hostage negotiations in the Middle East.
“Everyone knows it is a bad idea and they say they don’t do it, but everyone apart from the Americans and the British will persist in dropping cash from helicopters over the Sahara or transporting suitcases stuffed with money across the Turkish border into Syria," the consultant said.
Ransom payments in the past few years have included $22 million to al-Qaida in Yemen for the release of Swiss, Austrian and Finnish hostages. French newspaper Le Monde claimed in 2013 that France paid al-Qaida in the Maghreb $34 million in exchange for four Frenchmen who had been held captive for three years after being seized from a uranium mine in northern Nigeria.
And the Italian and French governments are suspected of having paid the Islamic State group ransoms for the release in Syria of their kidnapped citizens.
Officials at the Italian and Defense ministries did not respond to VOA requests for comment on the Scaravilli case.
On volunteer mission
Scaravilli, an orthopedic physician from the northern Italian city of Padua, joined a group of Sicilian doctors to work as a volunteer at a hospital in Dar Al Wafa, near Tripoli.
He was abducted at the end of a work shift as he left the hospital and at first there were fears he had been killed.
Italy President Sergio Mattarella welcomed the news of the doctor’s release by the kidnappers, thanking in a statement, “all authorities that have made possible the successful conclusion of the story.”
Mattarella made no comment on why Scaravilli had not been allowed to fly back to Italy immediately after gaining his freedom.
The U.S. adopted a no-ransom policy during the Nixon presidency. The only breach came with Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra deals for the return of American hostages held in Lebanon.
Britain follows a so-called “no-concessions policy” dating back to the 1970s and refuses to pay ransom for its citizens.
The Italian and French governments either decline to comment or deny when asked in particular cases whether they have paid kidnappers ransoms.
Critics of the U.S. and British hardline no-ransom position said it doesn’t deter jihadists from abducting Americans and Britons. It can also seal their fate.
While Italian and French hostages have been released by the Islamic State group, three Americans – including journalists James Foley and Steve Sotloff – were last year executed by the group, as were two British aid workers.