- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The Bush administration yesterday gave Italy the benefit of the doubt amid reports that Rome had paid a terrorist group in Iraq a $1 million ransom to secure the release of two Italian hostages.

“I have no information with respect to the release,” Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters at the State Department. “And I will take my lead from whatever the Italian government says about the matter.”

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini denied the reports, but Gustavo Selva, chairman of parliament’s foreign affairs panel, said that he believed a payment had been made.

“Yes, it was paid,” he was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying. “It was right because the life of the two girls was more important than the money. I think it was paid by the intelligence services.”

Italy’s ANSA news agency released a different version of Mr. Selva remarks.

“The official version is that no ransom was paid for Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, and as a politician I maintain this position,” he said, according to the agency. “However, as a journalist I have the impression that a ransom was paid, as it was the only way the lives of the two young women could be saved.”

In Kuwait, the managing editor of the daily al-Rai al-Aam, which predicted the women’s release on Saturday despite reports they had been killed, said their captors had originally demanded a much larger sum, but mediators persuaded them to lower it.

“When they asked for the $5 million, the cleric who is mediating told the captors that they can’t set conditions, but rather that they have to accept conditions imposed on them,” the editor, Ali el-Roz, told Reuters.

Italian press reports said that U.S. intelligence had helped Italy’s intelligence service to locate the hostages by using satellite technology, but U.S. officials declined comment.

Even though the United States has a large embassy in Rome with excellent contacts at the highest levels of government, the State Department continued to insist last night that it had no information that would dispute Mr. Frattini’s statement.

“We don’t know,” one senior U.S. official said.

Referring to Mr. Selva, the official added, “He believes there was a ransom but he doesn’t know it for a fact.

“We are against negotiating with terrorists and paying a ransom,” the official said.

Britain, which has rejected negotiations with the captors of one of its citizens, even after two Americans kidnapped with the Briton were executed last week, appeared to be softening its position yesterday.

“They’ve made no attempt to have any contact with us at all,” Prime Minister Tony Blair told reporters in Brighton, England, where his Labor Party is holding its annual conference. “If they did make contact, it would be something we would immediately respond to.”

British diplomats pointed out that the Briton, Kenneth Bigley, is being held by a different group from the one that abducted the Italians, so parallels should not be drawn.

“No connection should be made between the two,” one diplomat said. “We are absolutely dealing with different people.”

In Iraq, local officials appeared angrier than their American colleagues, claiming that payments are fueling the kidnapping trade.

“The reason for the acceleration in kidnappings is simply because ransoms are being paid,” said Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.

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