- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 25, 2005

ROME — Italy’s Red Cross treated four Iraqi insurgents and hid them from U.S. forces in exchange for the freedom of two Italian aid workers kidnapped last year in Baghdad, an official said in an interview published yesterday.

Maurizio Scelli, the outgoing chief of the Italian Red Cross, told La Stampa newspaper that he kept the deal secret from U.S. officials, complying with “a nonnegotiable condition” imposed by Iraqi mediators who helped him secure the release of Simona Pari and Simona Torretta. The hostages were abducted Sept. 7 and freed Sept. 28.

“The mediators asked us to save the lives of four alleged terrorists wanted by the Americans who were wounded in combat,” Mr. Scelli was quoted as saying. “We hid them and brought them to Red Cross doctors, who operated on them.”

They took the wounded insurgents to a Baghdad hospital in a jeep and in an ambulance, smuggling them through two U.S. checkpoints by hiding them under blankets and boxes of medicine, Mr. Scelli reportedly said.

Also as part of the deal, four Iraqi children suffering from leukemia were brought to Italy for treatment, he said.

Mr. Scelli told the newspaper he informed the Italian government of the deal and of the decision to hide it from the United States through Gianni Letta, an undersecretary in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government who has been in charge of Italy’s hostage crises in Iraq.

“Keeping quiet with the Americans about our efforts to free the hostages was an irrevocable condition to guarantee the safety of the hostages and ourselves,” Mr. Scelli told La Stampa. He said Mr. Letta agreed.

Officials at the Italian Red Cross headquarters in Rome said Mr. Scelli was out of the office and could not be immediately reached.

In a statement yesterday, the Italian government stopped short of denying it knew about the deal but said Mr. Scelli acted independently and that the government “never conditioned or oriented his action, which … was developed in complete autonomy.”

The statement did not directly address whether Italy had kept the United States in the dark about Mr. Scelli’s efforts, but it reiterated that Italy has always maintained a “full and reciprocal” cooperation with its American allies in Iraq.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack declined to comment on the issue and referred all questions to the Italian authorities.

Mr. Scelli told Italian TV news TG2 that the government had no direct role in the deal and that he informed it of his efforts “only informally.”

“We have always claimed this operation as our own. The contacts were held by us, contacts with Iraqi personnel, contacts with the mediators,” Mr. Scelli said, adding that Red Cross officials had not conducted direct negotiations with the kidnappers.

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