Italian president Giorgio Napolitano led a chorus of condemnation of Britain’s failure to inform the Italian government before launching a botched rescue mission with Nigerian forces that led to the deaths of British and Italian hostages held by a militant Islamist group.
Chris McManus from Britain and Italian Franco Lamolinara, who were kidnapped in May while working for a construction company in northwest Nigeria, were killed by their captors during the raid, David Cameron, the British prime minister said.
In the strongest Italian condemnation, Napolitano told reporters: “The behaviour of the British government in not informing Italy is inexplicable.
“A political and diplomatic clarification is necessary.”
Mario Monti, the prime minister, said Italy had been informed only after the raid began against a compound in the town of Sokoto. The British government later confirmed this.
“Italy wasn’t informed or asked its opinion about a blitz that put at mortal risk an Italian citizen,” Fabrizio Cicchitto, a senior official in former leader Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party, said in an interview.
“Between allies, this sort of mission is usually talked about beforehand. The British government bypassed and completely ignored us.”
While Italian media criticised Britain for acting unilaterally, commentators also said the event underscored Italy’s diminishing international clout.
They linked the incident to an ongoing struggle by Italy to free two marines on anti-piracy duty who are being held in India for shooting two fishermen dead in the Indian Ocean.
“The UK still acts, maybe unconsciously, with the nostalgia of imperial glory,” said Antonio Puri Purini in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s biggest daily, drawing another parallel with the capsizing of the cruise liner Costa Concordia in which at least 25 people died in January.
“First the tragic farce of Captain [Francesco] Schettino and then the arrest of the marines in Kochi,” said Puri Purini.
“The Italian public has a right to feel humiliated.”
Monti called a meeting with his senior security ministers and secret service representatives. A parliamentary committee has also said it will open a probe.
The British ambassador in Rome visited the Italian Foreign Ministry “on his own accord”, a British Foreign Office spokeswoman said.
In Britain there were attempts to play down the spat. “I don’t think failure to make a phone call five minutes earlier will damage relations between Britain and Italy,” Richard Ottaway, chairman of Britain’s Foreign Affairs select committee said.
“I understand the frustrations of the Italians, but I don’t think it is unreasonable because they are fast moving, sensitive operations and it’s not always possible to keep politicians briefed in advance of what goes on.”
A Downing Street spokesman said Britain had been in close contact with the Italian government since the kidnapping last May. Rome was contacted as the operation got underway, he said.
“The fact of the matter is things were moving quite quickly on the ground and we had to respond to that and our top priority was to maximise the chances of getting the hostages out.
Asked if Italian authorities had given prior approval to a rescue operation, he said: “When the prime minister [Cameron] phoned Mario Monti, the operation had happened. We knew that the hostages were dead.”
Monti spoke to Goodluck Jonathan, the Nigerian president whose special forces made up most of the attack force, to demand a “complete reconstruction” of the operation.
The hostage takers were a faction of Islamist sect Boko Haram that has links with al-Qaida, Nigeria’s State Security Service said.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved