The Italian government on Thursday denied a newspaper report that its secret services paid the Taliban thousands of dollars to keep an area in Afghanistan controlled by the Italians safe and did not tell allies about the payments.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi's office called the report in the Times of London "completely groundless." The defense minister denounced it as "rubbish" and said he wanted to sue the newspaper.
The Times reported that Italy had paid "tens of thousands of dollars" to Taliban commanders and warlords in the Surobi district, east of the capital, Kabul. The newspaper cites Western military officials, including high-ranking officers at NATO, speaking on condition of anonymity.
It accused Rome of failing to inform its allies, misleading the French, who took over the Surobi district in mid-2008, into thinking the area was quiet and safe. Shortly thereafter, the French contingent was hit with an ambush that killed 10 soldiers and had big political repercussions back in Paris.
"The Berlusconi government has never authorized nor has it allowed any form of payment toward members of the Taliban insurgence," a statement by the premier's office said. It says it does not know of any such payment by the previous government. Berlusconi won elections in April 2008, replacing a center-left government headed by Romano Prodi.
No comment from NATO
French Defense Ministry spokesman Christophe Prazuck said he had "no information to confirm what has been written in the Times" and stressed that troops in the region share information and enjoy mutual trust.
NATO spokesman James Appathurai refused to comment on the report.
The Aug. 18, 2008 ambush of the French in a mountain pass in the Surobi district was the biggest single combat loss for international forces in Afghanistan in more than three years. The attack, which killed 10 French troops and injured 21 others, shocked the French public. French officialdom came under heavy pressure to explain how its troops got caught in such a well-planned and unusually bloody ambush.
The statement by Berlusconi's office noted that in the first half of last year the Italian contingent suffered several attacks, including in the Surobi district where one soldier was killed in February 2008.
It said at the time the Italian contingent was praised by the ISAF, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. It quoted the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, as saying the Italians had achieved results in the area, especially in the construction of wells, bridges, schools and through aid to the agriculture.
Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said Thursday that the Times report was "absolutely rubbish and we take it as such." He said he had asked his lawyers to look into a possible lawsuit.
The report is "offensive to the deaths we have suffered in Afghanistan, to our injured ones and to the daily level of commitment of our soldiers," La Russa told reporters.
Italy has about 2,800 soldiers stationed in Herat and in the capital of Kabul. It has suffered 21 deaths in Afghanistan, including a soldier who died Thursday in a road accident.
The minister reiterated his condolences to the French but said that that loss "can in no way be connected to the behavior of our soldiers."
The statement by Berlusconi's office also denied that the U.S. ambassador to Italy had made a formal complaint in June 2008 over the alleged payments, as the Times reported.
Penchant for paying its way out of trouble?
The U.S. Embassy in Rome declined to comment on the Times report.
"We don't comment on conversations that may or may not have taken place," a U.S. Embassy spokesperson said Thursday under the standard practice of anonymity.
The Times report revived accusations that Italy has a penchant for paying its way out of difficult situations.
Allegations that Rome paid ransom to free its hostages have appeared in cases of kidnappings involving Italians abroad, though governments have denied this. In 2007, Prodi's government came under fire because it negotiated the release of five Taliban militants in exchange for the freedom of an Italian hostage in Afghanistan.
After the ambush, French President Nicolas Sarkozy rushed to Afghanistan to offer support for French troops. France's parliament held a no-confidence vote in the government weeks later over the attack, though the measure failed.
Reports later emerged that the French troops were poorly equipped, running out of ammunition 90 minutes into the battle and having only a single radio that went dead, leaving them unable to call for help. The French military denied the reports.
Prazuck said French, Italian and Turkish troops, all of whom oversee the Kabul region, had a relationship of "trust, full transparency."
"We share information constantly with the Italians, the Turks and the French in Kabul, daily, regularly," he said in Paris.
"There is one single strategy, one single chain of command," he added. "The troops in the region share information."