5 March 2005
By Robin Pomeroy
ROME (Reuters) - Freed Italian hostage Giuliana Sgrena has described on Saturday how U.S. forces sprayed her car with bullets as it neared safety in Iraq, wounding her and killing the man who had secured her release moments earlier.
U.S. forces opened fire as the car carrying Sgrena neared Baghdad airport on Friday after she was released by the militants who had held her captive for more than a month.
Sgrena, a 57-year-old award-winning war reporter, returned to Rome on Saturday and looked in pain as she was helped off a government plane, clutching a plaid blanket and attached to a drip and was put into an ambulance.
"We thought the danger was over after my release to the Italians but all of a sudden there was this shoot-out, we were hit by a barrage of bullets," she told RAI TV by telephone.
Nicola Calipari, the senior secret service agent who had worked for her release, was telling her about what had been going on in Italy since her capture when the shooting started.
"He leaned over me, probably to protect me, and then he slumped down, and I saw he was dead," said Sgrena.
The U.S. military said its forces fired because the car was speeding towards their checkpoint.
But in comments reported by ANSA news agency, Sgrena told Rome investigating magistrates during a debriefing that the car was not going fast and there was no real checkpoint.
"The firing was not justified by the speed of our car," she reportedly said, adding it was travelling at a "regular" speed.
"It wasn't a checkpoint, but a patrol which shot as soon as it had lit us up with a spotlight. We had no idea where the shots were coming from."
Doctors said Sgrena was in stable condition after suffering a gunshot wound to her left shoulder, fracturing a bone and causing bruising to a lung.
The incident could rekindle anti-war sentiment in Italy, where public opinion opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
It has caused the worst fall out in years between the United States and Italy, with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi taking the rare step of summoning the U.S. ambassador for an explanation.
In a telephone call, Bush promised Berlusconi a full investigation.
Berlusconi defied public opinion by sending 3,000 soldiers to Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 and has rejected past calls to withdraw the troops.
Italy's centre-left, which hopes to unseat Berlusconi next year in elections and to weaken his standing at local government polls next month, is campaigning on a platform of withdrawing.
While moderate opposition leaders were cautious in their criticism, hardline leftists said the shooting would galvanise anti-war opinion.
"I don't believe a word of the American version," said Oliviero Diliberto, head of the Italian Communist party, part of the main left-wing block led by former premier Romano Prodi.
"The Americans deliberately fired on Italians. This is huge. All of the centre-left must vote in parliament for the withdrawal of our troops."
Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini, who will address the lower house on the incident on Tuesday, said it would not harm ties with Washington.
"My position on the United States will not change one iota from what I have expressed a thousand times," Fini told leading daily newspaper Corriere della Sera. "This was a macabre twist of fate, a tragedy determined by destiny."
Sgrena's partner Pier Scolari, speaking outside the hospital where she is being treated, accused U.S. forces of, at best, recklessness and even suggested the troops had targeted Sgrena.
"I hope the Italian government does something because either this was an ambush, as I think, or we are dealing with imbeciles or terrorised kids who shoot at anyone," he said.
Two other secret service agents were also wounded in the shooting. One returned with Sgrena, the other, more seriously wounded, is being treated in Iraq.