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Last Updated: Monday, 7 March, 2005, 16:00 GMT
Italy's ransom dilemma
By Irene Peroni
BBC News

A debate is raging in Italy on whether paying ransom money to insurgent groups in Iraq is an acceptable strategy, three days after kidnapped journalist Giuliana Sgrena was released from captivity and her rescuer killed by "friendly fire".

Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi visits Giuliana Sgrena in hospital
Ms Sgrena survived her ordeal but was injured by "friendly fire"
The Italian media have been carrying unconfirmed reports that 6m euros ($7.9m, 4.1m) changed hands to free Ms Sgrena.

The government has not confirmed the claims, but for the first time there has been no official denial either.

When two young Italian aid workers were freed in September 2004, then Foreign Minister Franco Frattini denied that a ransom had been paid.

But MP Giuliano Selva said the denial was "purely official", and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi spoke of a "difficult choice which had to be made".

'Very likely'

The happy ending for several Italian kidnap dramas in Iraq is in stark contrast to the tragic outcome of other similar episodes, including the plight of British-Irish charity worker Margaret Hassan, who had been living and working in Iraq for several decades.

During her captivity, Tony Blair repeated several times that negotiating with the abductors was not an option - in line with the policy of the US, which leads the coalition forces.

The Italian government knows very well that negotiating with the insurgents is against the rules.

But it is equally aware it cannot count on public support if something goes tragically wrong.

Mr Berlusconi took the decision to deploy troops to Iraq at a time when 80% of Italians were against the war.

The public now stands by and large behind Italy's military presence there, mainly because the mission is seen as playing a crucial role in helping the country get back on its feet.

Had Ms Sgrena's captivity ended with her death, and possibly a gruesome video, the opposition, backed by public opinion, would have had a powerful political weapon to call for an immediate withdrawal.

'Hypocritical'

Talking to Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Agriculture Minister Gianni Alemanno said thought it "very likely" that a ransom had been paid, and justified the move.

"It is far preferable to pay a price that is relatively low compared to the value of a human life and to the political price of being blackmailed into pulling out the troops," he said.

But in a comment published by La Repubblica daily newspaper, Giuseppe D'Avanzo called Italy's ransom paying strategy the fruit of a "collective hypocrisy", which, he says, is difficult to "sweep under the carpet".

"We [Italians] are a community which, in times of tragedy, seeks, urges and invokes a bloodless solution, regardless of the material or symbolic price we have to pay," it says.

"These conditions are excellent for those who conduct the blackmail, and politically adventurous for those, like the government, who have to tackle it."

"Maybe, on a day when the country pays due tribute to a generous state official, it is also appropriate for us to feel the responsibility of this collective hypocrisy," he concluded in a reference to secret service agent Nicola Calipari, who died shortly after securing Ms Sgrena's release.


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