Freed hostage Giuliana Sgrena returned to Italy from Iraq on today hours after US troops fired on the car she was in, wounding her and killing an Italian intelligence officer who apparently tried to protect her.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was among the dignitaries at Rome’s Ciampino Airport to welcome the journalist after her weeks in the hands of her captors and the final ordeal of the checkpoint shooting en route to Baghdad’s airport.
Surrounded by relatives and military police, Sgrena, 56, was helped off the aircraft and put into an ambulance bound for a military clinic for an operation on her collarbone. A blanket was draped on her shoulders, and she appeared to be hooked up to an intravenous drip.
From the hospital, Sgrena recounted her ordeal. She said intelligence officer Nicola Calipari was killed probably trying to protect her.
“We thought the danger was over after my rescue,” she told Rai News 24 television by telephone. “
And instead suddenly there was this shooting, we were hit by a spray of fire. I was talking to Nicola … when he leaned over me, probably to defend me, and then he slumped over. That was a truly terrible thing.”
Pier Scolari, the journalist’s boyfriend, said she told him: “The most difficult moment was when I saw the person who had saved me die in my arms,” according to the ANSA news agency. Mr Calipari was to be awarded a posthumous medal of valour, officials said.
Sgrena told colleagues from her newspaper Il Manifesto, who met her plane, that her captors “never treated me badly”, ANSA reported.
Yesterday’s shooting occurred shortly after Sgrena was released after a month held hostage. She left Iraq after being discharged from a US military hospital in Iraq.
The shrapnel removed from Sgrena’s shoulder may have been a fragment of the fire that killed Mr Calipari, said Gabriele Polo, Sgrena’s editor. Polo said he spoke to Mr Berlusconi, who told him: “It was a terrible night, we will remember it for all our lives.”
The US military said the car Sgrena was riding in after her release was speeding as it approached a coalition checkpoint in western Baghdad on its way to the airport. It said soldiers shot into the engine block only after trying to warn the driver to stop by “hand and arm signals, flashing white lights and firing warning shots”.
US troops took Sgrena to an American military hospital in Iraq, where shrapnel was removed from her left shoulder.
Sgrena was abducted on February 4 by gunmen who blocked her car outside Baghdad University.
Last month, she was shown in a video pleading for her life and demanding that all foreign troops – including Italian forces – leave Iraq.
The shooting came as a blow to Mr Berlusconi, who has kept 3,000 troops in Iraq, and was likely to set off a wave of new protests in Italy, where hundreds of thousands have regularly demonstrated against US President George Bush’s efforts in Iraq.
One of Italy’s communist parties had already organised a protest outside the US consulate in Milan today. Around 50 people waved rainbow peace flags and handed out leaflets that read, “Shame on you, Bush”.
News of the shooting drew immediate criticism yesterday from Mr Berlusconi’s political foes.
“Another victim of an absurd war,” Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, leader of the Green Party, was quoted as telling the Apcom news agency.
Italy’s foreign minister said he hoped Mr Calipari’s death would not spark an anti-US backlash.
“That would be the most underhanded way of marking the memory of this hero,” Gianfranco Fini was quoted as telling Corriere della Sera newspaper.
Mr Bush called Mr Berlusconi and expressed his regret in a five-minute conversation, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said last night. Mr Berlusconi summoned the US ambassador to Rome, Mel Sembler.
“The United States will continue to provide all necessary assistance,” Mr Sembler said in a statement, expressing condolences to Mr Calipari’s family and wishing the wounded a quick recovery. “And we are working with our Italian allies as we fully investigate the circumstances of this tragedy.”
Pope John Paul II sent two messages of condolences, one to Mr Berlusconi and another to Mr Calipari’s family, the Vatican said.