Italian premier disputes US version of shooting

Demanding answers and disputing Washington’s version of events, Italy’s premier said an Italian intelligence agent who was shot to death by US troops in Baghdad had informed the proper authorities he was heading to the airport with a freed hostage.

Demanding answers and disputing Washington’s version of events, Italy’s premier said an Italian intelligence agent who was shot to death by US troops in Baghdad had informed the proper authorities he was heading to the airport with a freed hostage.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi also told MPs yesterday that the car carrying agent Nicola Calipari and a just-liberated hostage was travelling slowly and stopped immediately when a light was flashed at a checkpoint, before US troops fired on the car.

In a carefully-worded address – his first major speech since the shooting - Berlusconi said Italy had the duty to demand the truth about Friday’s shooting from its US allies.

“I’m sure that in a very short time every aspect of this will be clarified,” Berlusconi said.

The idea that Calipari was killed by friendly fire is painful to accept, the premier said. But he reassured MPs: “The US has no intention of evading the truth.”

Berlusconi is a staunch supporter of US President George Bush and the US-led campaign, and has been struggling to balance his decision to keep 3,000 troops in Iraq against heavy anti-war sentiment in Italy.

Several commentators praised his speech for its equilibrium: Il Sole-24 Ore newspaper said Berlusconi showed “a skillful blend of firmness and restraint”.

MPs followed the speech with a standing ovation in Calipari’s honour.

The 20-minute address did not mention whether ransom was paid to win the release of former hostage Giuliana Sgrena.

Some Italian officials have suggested money changed hands, but there has been no official confirmation. Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini denied the suggestions yesterday.

“There has been no payment,” he said during a talk show on RAI1 state television.

Giving Italy’s version of the shooting, Berlusconi said Calipari had notified an Italian liaison officer, waiting at the Baghdad airport along with an American officer, that he was on his way with Sgrena.

However, the top US general in Iraq has said he had no indication Italian officials gave advance notice of the route the Italians’ car was taking.

In a statement released after the shooting, the US Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, which controls Baghdad, said the vehicle was speeding and refused to stop.

The statement also said a US patrol tried to warn a driver with hand and arm signals, by flashing white lights and firing shots in front of the car.

Berlusconi again urged Italians in Iraq to leave.

“When Italian citizens have been victims of kidnappings, the government has always acted by following two directives.

"It has always rejected political blackmail, while at the same time activating all the political, diplomatic and intelligence channels to obtain the release of our nationals,” Berlusconi said.

Calipari was shot and killed as he headed to Baghdad’s airport after securing the release of Sgrena, who had been kidnapped on February 4. Sgrena and another intelligence officer in the vehicle were wounded.

“The case of friendly fire is certainly the most painful to bear. It feels like an injustice beyond any sentiment. It’s something unreasonable,” Berlusconi said.

Photos aired by RAI, state TV’s main evening news program, showed the light grey Toyota Corolla that Calipari and Sgrena were riding in, which is still in Iraq in the hands of the US military.

The body of the car appeared to have little or no damage on its left side and front, including the lights. A few bullet holes are visible on the right side - near the wheel and the front door.

Inside, the seats appear to be covered in glass, although the photos of the interior are grainy. A bullet hole also is evident in the back seat on the left side, where Sgrena reportedly was sitting.

US officials have said American troops fired at the car’s engine to stop it.

The office of Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi said yesterday that Bush had sent him a letter renewing a promise for a swift and thorough investigation.

In it, Bush called the shooting a “terrible tragedy” and expressed his solidarity, Ciampi’s office said.

The US-led coalition in Iraq announced on Tuesday it was ordering an investigation into the shooting, to be led by a US brigadier general with Italian officials’ participation. Berlusconi said he expected the joint commission to release its findings in three to four weeks.

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