U.S. Forces Fired on Car Carrying Freed Italian Hostage in Iraq


New York Times

March 4, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- American troops fired on a car carrying Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena as it drove her to freedom Friday after a month in captivity, killing the intelligence officer who helped negotiate her release and injuring the reporter.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, an ally of the United States who has kept Italian troops in Iraq despite public opposition at home, demanded an explanation from the U.S. ambassador in Rome, Mel Sembler.

``Given that the fire came from an American source I called in the American ambassador,'' Berlusconi said. ``I believe we must have an explanation for such a serious incident, for which someone must take the responsibility.''

The U.S. military said ``at approximately 8:55 p.m. tonight, coalition forces assigned to the multinational force Iraq fired on a vehicle that was approaching a coalition checkpoint in Baghdad at a high rate of speed.''

A U.S. patrol ``attempted to warn the driver to stop by hand and arm signals, flashing white lights, and firing warning shots in front of the car,'' the military said in a statement. ``When the driver didn't stop, the soldiers shot into the engine block which stopped the vehicle, killing one and wounding two others.''

However, Berlusconi said three, not two, were wounded -- Sgrena and two intelligence officers. The Apcom news agency in Italy said one of the agents was in serious condition and is believed to have suffered a lung injury. The U.S. military said Army medics treated a wounded man but that ``he refused medical evacuation for further assistance.''

The intelligence agent was killed when he threw himself over Sgrena to protect her from U.S. fire, Apcom quoted Gabriele Polo, the editor of Sgrena's newspaper Il Manifesto, as saying.

Berlusconi identified the dead intelligence officer as Nicola Calipari and said he had been at the forefront of negotiations with the kidnappers. The prime minister said Calipari had been involved in the release of Italian hostages in Iraq in the past.

U.S. troops took Sgrena to an American military hospital, where shrapnel was removed from her left shoulder.

Sgrena, 56, who worked for the leftist Il Manifesto, was abducted Feb. 4 by gunmen who blocked her car outside Baghdad University. Last month, she was shown in a video pleading for her life and demanding that all foreign troops -- including Italian forces -- leave Iraq.

Berlusconi said he had been celebrating Sgrena's release with the editor of Il Manifesto, and with Sgrena's boyfriend, Pier Scolari, when he took a phone call from an agent who informed them of the shooting.

``It's a shame that the joy we all felt was turned into tragedy,'' Berlusconi said.

The shooting came as a blow to Berlusconi, who has kept 3,000 troops in Iraq despite strong opposition in Italy. The shooting was likely to set off new protests in Italy, where tens of thousands have regularly turned out on the streets to protest the Iraq war. Sgrena's newspaper was a loud opponent of the war.

In a 2003 friendly-fire incident involving Italians, American soldiers in northern Iraq shot at a car carrying the Italian official heading up U.S. efforts to recover Iraq's looted antiquities. Pietro Cordone, the top Italian diplomat in Iraq, was unhurt, but his Iraqi translator was killed.

Cordone, also the senior adviser for cultural affairs of the U.S. provisional authority, was traveling on the road between Mosul and Tikrit when his car was fired on at a U.S. roadblock, according to an Italian Foreign Ministry official.

The circumstances of Sgrena's release were unclear.

The Italian government announced earlier Friday that Sgrena had been freed, prompting expressions of joy and relief from officials and her family.

Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini expressed ``great joy and enormous satisfaction,'' the ANSA news agency said.

The reporter's father was so overwhelmed by the news that he needed assistance from a doctor, ANSA said. ``This is an exceptional day,'' Franco Sgrena was quoted as saying.

At Il Manifesto's offices, reporters toasted the release with champagne.

On Feb. 19, tens of thousands of demonstrators marched through Rome waving rainbow peace flags to press for Sgrena's release. Il Manifesto and Sgrena's boyfriend organized the march.

About 200 foreigners have been abducted in Iraq in the past year, and more than 30 of the hostages were killed.

Another European reporter, Florence Aubenas, a veteran war correspondent for France's leftist daily Liberation, is still being held in Iraq. Aubenas and her interpreter, Hussein Hanoun al-Saadi, disappeared nearly two months ago.


Associated Press writer Angela Doland contributed to this report from Rome.