- The Washington Times - Friday, March 4, 2005

BAGHDAD — American troops fired on a car carrying Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena as it took her to freedom yesterday after a month in captivity, killing the intelligence officer who helped negotiate her release and injuring the reporter.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, an ally of the United States who has kept troops in Iraq despite public opposition at home, demanded an explanation from the U.S. ambassador, Mel Sembler.

“Given that the fire came from an American source, I called in the American ambassador,” Mr. Berlusconi told reporters before the U.S. statement acknowledging that coalition forces shot at the vehicle. “I believe we must have an explanation for such a serious incident, for which someone must take the responsibility.”

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said “details are still unclear” but “we regret the loss of life.”

“We are coordinating closely with Italian authorities in Iraq to investigate the incident. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of the Italian citizen,” Mr. McClellan said.

The U.S. military said the car was speeding as it approached a coalition checkpoint in western Baghdad at 8:55 p.m. 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.”

The Americans said two persons were wounded, but Mr. Berlusconi said there were three — Miss Sgrena and two intelligence officers. One of the officers was in serious condition with an apparent lung injury, according to the Apcom news agency in Italy. The U.S. military said Army medics treated a wounded man but that “he refused medical evacuation for further assistance.”

Gabriele Polo, the editor of Miss Sgrena’s newspaper, Il Manifesto, said the intelligence agent was killed when he threw himself over Miss Sgrena to protect her from U.S. fire, Apcom reported.

Mr. Berlusconi identified the dead intelligence officer as Nicola Calipari and said he had been at the forefront of negotiations with the kidnappers. The prime minister said Mr. Calipari had been involved in the release of Italian hostages in the past.

U.S. troops took Miss Sgrena to an American military hospital, where shrapnel was removed from her left shoulder, he said.

Miss Sgrena, 56, was abducted Feb. 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.

Mr. Berlusconi said he had been celebrating Miss Sgrena’s release with the editor of Il Manifesto, and with Miss Sgrena’s boyfriend, Pier Scolari, when he took a phone call from an agent who informed them of the shooting.

“It’s a shame that the joy we all felt was turned into tragedy,” Mr. Berlusconi said.

The shooting came as a blow to Mr. Berlusconi, who has kept 3,000 troops in Iraq despite strong opposition in Italy. The shooting is likely to spark new protests in Italy, where tens of thousands have regularly turned out on the streets to protest the Iraq war. Miss Sgrena’s newspaper was a vocal opponent of the war.

In a 2003 friendly-fire incident involving Italians, American soldiers in northern Iraq shot at a car carrying the Italian official heading U.S. efforts to recover Iraq’s looted antiquities. Pietro Cordone, the top Italian diplomat in Iraq, was not hurt, but his Iraqi translator was killed.

Mr. Cordone, also the senior adviser for cultural affairs of the U.S. provisional authority, was traveling on the road between Mosul and Tikrit when his car was fired on at a U.S. roadblock, according to an Italian Foreign Ministry official.

The circumstances of Miss Sgrena’s release were not clear.

The Italian government announced earlier yesterday that Miss Sgrena had been freed, prompting expressions of joy and relief from officials and her family.

Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini expressed “great joy and enormous satisfaction,” the ANSA news agency said.

The reporter’s father was so overwhelmed by the news that he needed assistance from a doctor, ANSA said.

“This is an exceptional day,” Franco Sgrena was quoted as saying.

At Il Manifesto’s offices, reporters toasted the release with champagne.

On Feb. 19, tens of thousands of demonstrators marched through Rome waving rainbow peace flags to press for Miss Sgrena’s release. Il Manifesto and Miss Sgrena’s boyfriend organized the march.

About 200 foreigners have been abducted in Iraq in the past year, and more than 30 of the hostages were killed.

Another European reporter, Florence Aubenas, a veteran war correspondent for France’s leftist daily Liberation, is still being held in Iraq. Miss Aubenas and her interpreter, Hussein Hanoun al-Saadi, disappeared nearly two months ago.

Also yesterday, two members of the Shi’ite-led United Iraqi Alliance dropped out of the political group because of its inability to carve out a deal for a new prime minister after historic Jan. 30 elections.

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