Italy’s Red Cross treated four Iraqi insurgents and hid them from U.S. forces in exchange for the freedom of two Italian aid workers kidnapped last year in Baghdad, an official said in an interview published Thursday.
Maurizio Scelli, the outgoing chief of the Italian Red Cross, told La Stampa newspaper that he kept the deal secret from U.S. officials, complying with “a nonnegotiable condition” imposed by Iraqi mediators who helped him secure the release of Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, who were abducted on Sept. 7 and freed Sept. 28.
“The mediators asked us to save the lives of four alleged terrorists wanted by the Americans who were wounded in combat,” Scelli was quoted as saying. “We hid them and brought them to Red Cross doctors, who operated on them.”
Smuggled through checkpoints
They took the wounded insurgents to a Baghdad hospital in a jeep and in an ambulance, smuggling them through two U.S. checkpoints by hiding them under blankets and boxes of medicine, Scelli reportedly said.
Also as part of the deal, four Iraqi children suffering from leukemia were brought to Italy for treatment, he said.
Scelli told the newspaper he informed the Italian government of the deal and of the decision to hide it from the U.S. through Gianni Letta, an undersecretary in Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s government who has been in charge of Italy’s hostage crises in Iraq.
“Keeping quiet with the Americans about our efforts to free the hostages was an irrevocable condition to guarantee the safety of the hostages and ourselves,” he told La Stampa. He said Letta agreed.
Officials at the Italian Red Cross headquarters in Rome said Scelli was out of the office and could not be immediately reached.
Italian government: Scelli acted independently
In a statement Thursday, the Italian government stopped short of denying it knew about the deal but said Scelli acted independently and that the government “never conditioned or oriented his action, which ... was developed in complete autonomy.”
The statement also did not directly address whether or not Italy had kept the U.S. in the dark about Scelli’s efforts, but reiterated that Italy has always maintained a “full and reciprocal” cooperation with its American allies in Iraq.
Scelli told Italian TV news TG2 that Italian authorities had no direct role in the deal and that he informed the government of his efforts “only informally.”
“We have always claimed this operation as our own. The contacts were held by us, contacts with Iraqi personnel, contacts with the mediators,” Scelli said, adding that Red Cross officials had not conducted direct negotiations with the kidnappers.
At least eight Italians have been kidnapped in Iraq, and two were killed. An intelligence officer who was escorting a hostage to freedom mistakenly was killed by U.S. fire in Baghdad in March.
Rome’s handling of its hostage situations has come under scrutiny, with many at home and abroad contending that Italy paid ransoms for their release.
Berlusconi’s government has denied that ransom were paid, but some lawmakers have indicated money might have changed hands.