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Italian Ex-hostage Disputes Results of Shooting Inquiry

by Chris Shumway

The conclusion drawn by American investigators looking into last month’s wounding of a released Italian hostage and killing of her escort in Iraq reportedly exonerates the shooters; but Italians contest the US version.

Apr. 29, 2005 – Italian journalist and former hostage Guiliana Sgrena this week sharply criticized the findings of a US-led investigation into a March roadside attack in which US forces wounded her and killed a high-ranking Italian intelligence agent.

Although a final report from the US-led team looking into the shooting has not been officially released, details from the investigation were leaked to reporters Monday. According to Reuters, an unnamed "US Army official" said American soldiers had properly followed the rules of engagement by opening fire on the Italians’ vehicle while it was headed to the Baghdad airport. The findings also reportedly recommend the soldiers not face charges.

In response, Sgrena suggested at a news conference Tuesday in Rome that US officials were trying to cover up what she termed the "murder" of Nicola Calipari, the agent who was killed in the shooting. "Now we want the truth, and we want to know who gave the order to open fire on that car," she said.

Sgrena, still recovering physically from the shooting, also wrote a commentary that appeared on the front page of Il Manifesto, the leftist newspaper for which Sgrena wrote while in Iraq. In her piece, she called the results of the investigation a "slap in the face" to her country. She urged the two Italians on the investigating team, as well as Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, not to accept the findings.

"The greatest disappointment would be if our authorities were to accept this insult without reacting," Sgrena wrote.

Italian news outlets have reported that the Italian investigators disagree with the conclusions and have refused to sign the team’s final report . Members of Berlusconi’s political opposition in Italy have sharply criticized the investigation and called for continued examination into the incident, the LA Times reports.

Berlusconi told reporters yesterday that his government "will not sign off" on any report "that does not convince us." He further admitted that Italian and American officials were having trouble reaching an agreement in their joint investigation.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an international media watchdog that has protested the shootings of correspondents in Iraq by US troops, said in a statement released Wednesday that it was "troubled by the reported disagreement" between Italians and American officials. "The failure to reach an agreement would be a missed opportunity to address the serious issue of safety for civilians - including members of the press - at US checkpoints. We reiterate our call for a thorough and credible investigation," the statement said.

News of the leaked report re-focuses attention on two sharply different accounts of the shooting - from the US military on one side; and on the other, from Sgrena and the driver of the car, an unidentified Italian agent who US troops also wounded.

US military officials claimed previously that they had concluded the car carrying Sgrena and Calipari was speeding through a "temporary checkpoint" near the Baghdad airport. Soldiers issued visual warnings - hand signals and flashing lights - and fired warning shots in an attempt to get the driver to stop the car, according to the military. The military asserts that when the car failed to stop, soldiers reportedly fired into the car’s engine block, which suggests they were in front of the vehicle when the shooting occurred.

In an interview with the American radio program Democracy Now! broadcast this Wednesday, Sgrena provided a detailed oral account of the incident, maintaining that the car was not speeding and that US soldiers did not warn the driver to stop the car.

Sgrena also says the shots that killed Calipari and wounded her came from behind the car, not the front as the military contends. "They shot on the back, because Calipari was on the back on the right and he was shot dead immediately, and I was injured in the shoulder, but I was shot by the back," Sgrena told Democracy Now!

Italian government officials say the driver has testified that he saw a warning light and stopped the car immediately. At the same time, according to his account, soldiers were firing at the car. Like Sgrena, the driver also reportedly contends that he was traveling slowly - about 40 to 50 kilometers per hour (25-30 mph) - as he approached the soldiers’ position, according to Italy’s Corriere della Serra newspaper.

Sgrena told Democracy Now! that the driver, as he exited the car, was talking on a mobile phone, supposedly with one of Berlusconi’s advisors in Rome and the chief of Italy’s intelligence service. At this point, according to Sgrena, US soldiers ordered the driver to turn off his phone.

Another issue raised by the opposing accounts is the question of whether Calipari, an experienced hostage negotiator who had been in Iraq before, had contacted Italian and American officials to let them know he had won Sgrena’s release from insurgents and was bringing her to the airport for the trip back to Italy.

US officials have insisted that they were unaware of Calipari’s movements.

But Sgrena said Calipari, apparently following protocol, called an Italian general in Baghdad who was with an American commander and in turn asked him to inform US forces that Calipari’s party was on the road and would soon be arriving at the airport. "I was there when the agent called the Italian one, the general that is in charge of communications with the Americans," Sgrena said.

Sgrena identified the American commander as "Captain Green," and said Calipari did not contact him directly because, according to official procedures, "It’s impossible for an agent - an Italian agent - to speak with the Americans directly." After contacting the Italian general, Sgrena said, there appeared to be no communication problems.

"Commander Green knew about our presence on that road," she asserted. "If he didn’t inform the mobile patrol, we don’t know."

Calipari had also obtained a badge from American commanders at the airport when he arrived in Iraq to negotiate her release, according to Sgrena. "And they knew that he was there with a car, with weapons, and with another agent," she said.

Sgrena also maintains that when their car came under fire, the Italians were traveling on a special, secure road reserved for embassy personnel and other officials. She also insists that the US unit was not staffing a visible checkpoint.

Asked if the soldiers tried to warn the Italians’ car, Sgrena responded: "No, they didn’t. No, no. No light, no air fire, nothing at all. They were beside the road. They were not on the street. They were away ten meters, and they didn’t give us any sign that they were there, so we didn’t saw them before they started to shoot."

The car was shipped to Italy on Tuesday where Italian investigators working separately from the US-led team will examine it, the BBC reports.

US officials say they won’t comment publicly on the investigation until a final report is released, although Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggested Tuesday he was aware that members of the investigative team were in disagreement.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Chris Shumway is a contributing journalist.

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