By Ismail Sameem KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Reuters
The Taliban said on Sunday they had handed a kidnapped Italian journalist to tribal leaders, but added they would recapture him unless all their ransom demands were met by the Afghan government.
La Repubblica reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo and two Afghan colleagues were seized two weeks ago in the lawless southern province of Helmand, where NATO and Afghan forces have launched a major offensive.
The Taliban, who said the reporter had confessed to spying for British troops, on Saturday extended a deadline to kill him by three days to Monday if their full demands were not met.
Mastrogiacomo and his Afghan translator were handed over to tribal elders after Kabul freed two Taliban officials, rebel spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf told Reuters by satellite phone from a secret location.
“We handed over the two to a third party after we got two of the three people we wanted to be freed,” Yousuf said, without giving details of where the reporter and his Afghan translator had been moved.
A provincial official said two Taliban were released late on Saturday night. Yousuf said the pair were spokesman Latif Hakimi and a leader known as Ustad Yasar. The two were arrested in Pakistan in 2005 and handed to Kabul.
Yousuf said the rebels wanted the third released as well before Mastrogiacomo could be freed. If that demand is not met the Taliban said they would take back the journalist and his colleague.
Some media reports said Mastrogiacomo’s driver was executed on Thursday, prompting Italy to say it was redoubling efforts to secure the reporter’s release.
Mastrogiacomo’s employer, La Repubblica, has denied he was a spy and said he had worked for the newspaper since 1980.
On Sunday, the Italian government said the Karachi-born journalist was still being held against his will.
“We have seen reports that he has been handed over to a third party of tribal chiefs. That is not a liberation,” an Italian government spokesman said.
“He has probably been handed over to people who have the task of verifying whether certain conditions have been met and whether to free him or not,” he said, adding that the situation remained “very delicate.”
Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who has been under pressure at home over his foreign policy, including on sending troops to Afghanistan, said he had spoken to Afghan President Hamid Karzai who is visiting Germany and France.
But Prodi refused to give details of the conversation.
“Now in Afghanistan it is getting dark and we can’t do much today, but we’ve been working since dawn and we will carry on now,” he said in response to questions by reporters.
Italian aid group Emergency, which says it has been mediating in the crisis and received a video of Mastrogiacomo on March 14, also said the situation was not resolved.
“The Taliban’s demands need to be fully met and we are still not there, and that makes the situation complex and worrying,” Emergency’s Vice-President Carlo Garbagnati told Reuters.
There have been different versions of what the Taliban want in exchange for the journalist.
The rebels have at times demanded the release of one of their jailed leaders, sometimes mentioned the name of two Taliban officials and at others, three.