April 9, 2007 / 3:46 PM / 12 years ago

Afghan killing raises pressure on Italy's Prodi

ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s prime minister, Romano Prodi, came under fire on Monday after the Taliban killed the Afghan translator of an Italian journalist freed in a controversial prisoner swap last month.

Prodi has already had to fight accusations of encouraging hostage-taking in Afghanistan after he pressured the Kabul government to free five Taliban prisoners in exchange for reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo.

On Monday he was accused of double standards over Mastrogiacomo’s translator, who was beheaded by the Taliban, and also faced charges that the government paid $2 million (1 million pounds) to free another Italian journalist kidnapped in Afghanistan last year.

Mastrogiacomo was released on March 19 but the Taliban, who had already killed his Afghan driver, had kept his translator Ajmal Naqshbandi, seeking more concessions.

On Sunday, the Taliban said they had killed Naqshbandi after Kabul refused to free more detainees.

The news shook Italian politicians out of an Easter holiday lull, with the opposition demanding Prodi explain himself in parliament and some saying he should resign.

Prodi condemned Naqshbandi’s death and accused the opposition of “heinously exploiting” it.

But he also came under attack from charity group Emergency, which acted as a mediator during Mastrogiacomo’s kidnapping and in past hostage crises involving Italian nationals.

Emergency’s head, Gino Strada, said Prodi’s government had paid $2 million in ransom to free Gabriele Torsello, another Italian journalist kidnapped in Afghanistan last October.

Strada said the ransom was given to Torsello’s captors by an Afghan member of Emergency, Rahamtullah Hanafi, currently detained by the Kabul government on suspicion of playing a part in Mastrogiacomo’s kidnapping.

Strada said the episode proved Hanafi’s good faith, and accused Rome of doing nothing to secure his release.

In a statement, Prodi’s government did not deny Strada’s ransom claims, saying negotiations for Torsello’s release followed procedures already established by the former centre-right administration of Silvio Berlusconi.

The statement was a reference to claims that Berlusconi’s government also paid ransom to free Italian hostages in Iraq.

The United States and Britain have attacked the conditions of Mastrogiacomo’s release, saying the deal would encourage more kidnappings and endanger NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Right-wing senator Roberto Calderoli accused the Rome government on Monday of discriminating between Italian and Afghan hostages and called for a parliamentary inquiry.

“The government negotiated in a discriminatory fashion, rushing to save what they saw as the A-league hostage and leaving the other, second-class captives to their tragic destiny,” he said.

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