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IRAQ WAR -
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Italian Hostage Freed in Iraq Is Shot by G.I.'s at Checkpoint

Posted in the database on Saturday, March 05th, 2005 @ 16:36:33 MST (1698 views)
by Edward Wong and Jason Horowitz    New York Times  

Untitled Document BAGHDAD, Iraq, Saturday, March 5 - American soldiers guarding a checkpoint here fired Friday night on a car carrying a kidnapped Italian journalist who had just been freed, wounding the journalist and killing an Italian intelligence agent, according to American and Italian officials.

The Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, said in Rome that the intelligence agent had been instrumental in negotiating the release of Giuliana Sgrena, the abducted journalist. Two other intelligence agents in the car were injured in the shooting, Mr. Berlusconi said.

The car carrying the Italians approached a checkpoint "at a high rate of speed" at 8:55 p.m. local time, the military said in a statement. A Pentagon spokesman said Ms. Sgrena was being brought to Camp Victory, the American command headquarters near Baghdad International Airport, along one of the most dangerous roads in Iraq.

A State Department official in Washington said that an American hostage coordinator in Iraq had not been informed of Ms. Sgrena's release. The military did not know the hostage was in the car, the official said.

Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said that soldiers flashed white lights, used arm and hand signals and fired warning shots as the car approached them at high speed, and fired at the car only when it did not slow down or stop.

Insurgents regularly detonate roadside bombs and shoot at military and civilian vehicles along the five-mile road. American soldiers across Iraq are wary of speeding cars approaching checkpoints or convoys.

President Bush, who visited New Jersey and Indiana today, called Mr. Berlusconi from Air Force One to express "regret" at the incident, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, told reporters traveling with the president.

"The president assured Prime Minister Berlusconi that the incident will be fully investigated," Mr. McClellan said.

A senior military official in Baghdad said the checkpoint where the shooting took place was being operated by the 10th Mountain Division. The 69th Infantry Regiment of the 42nd Infantry Division, a National Guard unit, is also responsible for securing the airport road.

The intelligence agent who was killed, Nicola Calipari, had hurled himself atop Ms. Sgrena to protect her, Ms. Sgrena's editor, Gabriele Polo, told Apcom, an Italian news agency.

The American military said Ms. Sgrena, 56, was being treated by American military doctors, though it did not say whether she was still in Baghdad or had been moved elsewhere, possibly to Europe. People seriously wounded here are often treated at a military hospital in the heavily fortified Green Zone on the west bank of the Tigris River and, if needed, flown on a C-130 transport plane to Germany.

The shooting places the American and Italian governments in an extremely awkward position. Mr. Berlusconi has staunchly supported the American-led invasion of Iraq despite its unpopularity in Italy, keeping 3,000 Italian troops in this country even as protesters have flooded the streets of Rome.

The number of Italian troops is tiny compared to the American or even the British presence here, but Italy's commitment is symbolically important for President Bush: It shows that at least one leading Western European country is still willing to wage the war alongside the Americans.

It is almost certain that the shooting will ignite another round of antiwar protests in Italy, with Ms. Sgrena's left-wing newspaper, Il Manifesto, possibly leading the charge. There will no doubt be demands that Mr. Berlusconi respond aggressively to the shooting and withdraw all Italian troops from Iraq.

Indeed, Friday's turn of events, from early relief over the release of Ms. Sgrena to the shock of the shooting as she was on her way home, seemed to emotionally drain Italy.

"On this great joy has fallen an enormous grief," Mr. Berlusconi said at a news conference in Rome. "We were turned to stone when the officials told us about it on the telephone."

After hearing of the shooting, Mr. Berlusconi demanded to see the American ambassador in Rome, Mel Sembler.

"Given that the fire came from an American source I called in the American ambassador," Mr. Berlusconi said. "I believe we must have an explanation for such a serious incident, for which someone must take the responsibility."The shooting raises questions about the rules of engagement under which American soldiers are operating here, particularly on roads frequented by civilian vehicles. The American military has never released statistics showing how many incidents have taken place in which American troops have fired on innocent vehicles. But such incidents - including ones resulting in deaths - have taken place in recent months, and have been documented by reporters and photographers embedded with American units.

In January, soldiers with the 25th Infantry Division fired on a car carrying seven Iraqis - five of them children - after the driver ignored warning shots intended to dissuade the car from approaching an American patrol in the northern town of Tal Afar. The children's' parents were killed, and one child was injured. Photographs of the incident showed the surviving children covered in their parents' blood.

On Feb. 5, American soldiers at a checkpoint fired three shots into a truck carrying Western contractors on the airport road in Baghdad, according to an unclassified American government report. The truck had been approaching the checkpoint at 6 miles an hour when the shooting began. Though the truck took two shots to the side and one to the windshield, no one was injured.

Italian and American officials did not give any explanation of how Ms. Sgrena had come to be freed on Friday and traveling in a civilian car to Camp Victory, unaccompanied by an American escort.

Ms. Sgrena was abducted on Feb. 4 after she had finished conducting several hours of interviews with refugees from the decimated city of Falluja who were at a mosque on the grounds of Baghdad University. Gunmen pulled up in front of Ms. Sgrena's car as she was leaving and dragged her into their vehicle. Her Iraqi employees somehow managed to escape.

Two weeks later, Ms. Sgrena's captors released a video showing her pleading for her life and asking for the withdrawal of all the American-led forces. The words "Mujahedeen Without Borders," presumably the name of the group holding her, appeared in digital red Arabic script on a backdrop.

Ms. Sgrena had filed many stories harshly criticizing the American war here, but had also written of the shortcomings of Islamic fundamentalism.

At least 200 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq, generally by criminal gangs looking to sell the hostages back to their companies or countries. Most have been released unharmed, but at least 30 have been killed. One was a freelance Italian journalist, Enzo Baldoni, who was kidnapped last August while driving from Baghdad to cover an uprising in the holy city of Najaf.

At least 27 journalists, including Iraqis, have been abducted, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Still being held is Florence Aubenas, a longtime war correspondent for the French newspaper Libération. Her captors released a video earlier this week showing Ms. Aubenas pale and emaciated, and she said herself that she was physically and mentally unwell.

Last September, the Italian public had to cope with an intense hostage ordeal after armed men here kidnapped two Italian aid workers, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, both 29, in an audacious daylight raid. The two women were released after three weeks. They said they had been treated well by their captors, and Ms. Torretta later told reporters in Rome that the insurgency was legitimate resistance to an occupation.


Edward Wong reported from Baghdad for this article, and Jason Horowitz from Rome. Additional reporting was contributed by James Glanz from Baghdad, Kirk Semple from London and Steven R. Weisman and Thom Shanker from Washington.



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