The Italian government today denied a British newspaper report that Italy's secret services had paid the Taliban thousands of dollars to keep an Italian-controlled area in Afghanistan safe and announced plans to sue the paper.
Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa has said he will tell his cabinet chief to assign lawyers to take legal action against The Times. It has yet to be decided whether this action will be done in the minister's or government's name.
The Italian news agency Ansa quotes La Russa as saying that the article "offends our soldiers and our deaths."
"The Times," said the minister, "is distinguishing itself for its anti-Italian line and the unverified news it publishes does it no honor."
The government statement, issued ealier in the day, called the report "totally unfounded" and went on to specify that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government "has never authorized nor consented to any form of payment in favor of the Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, nor does it have any knowledge of such actions by the previous government."
The Afghans also refute the report. "It's not possible, it's not true," Fawzia Koofi, deputy director of the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the Afghan parliament, is quoted as saying in an interview with Italian news agency Adnkronos International.
"There have been lots of accusations circulating within the NATO forces in Afghanistan, with countries blaming one another. Normally these are totally unfounded accusations. "
"In such a delicate moment in Afghanistan, when we still do not know the definitive results of the Aug. 20 presidential elections, it is not good that the international community carries out this in-fighting. This does not help to improve the situation."
The Times article quoted unnamed Western military officials including high-ranking officers at NATO in their report which claimed that Italian secret services paid Taliban commanders and warlords in the Surobi district, east of the capital, Kabul.
The French took over the district from the Italians in mid-2008, and according to The Times believed the area was quiet and safe as the Italians had not informed them of the situation. A month after taking over the Surobi district, the French contingent suffered an ambush that killed 10 soldiers, one of the biggest single losses of life by NATO forces in Afghanistan.
News of the attack caused shock and horror back home in France. This was compounded when it was learned that many of the dead soldiers had been mutilated by the Taliban. Photographs later appeared which showed the militants showing off their victims' flak jackets and weapons. One of the Taliban was even photographed wearing a watch taken from a dead French soldier.
The Italian government statement today went on to note that in "the first half of last year the Italian contingent in Afghanistan suffered several attacks, including one in the Surobi district where one soldier, Lieutenant Francesco Pezzulo, was killed in an attack on Feb. 13, 2008."
The statement outlined how the Italian contingent in that region received unanimous approval from NATO and its allies for its reconstruction work. It quotes U.S. Gen.David McKiernan, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan at that time, praising the results obtained by the Italian contingent, especially in the Surobi area.
Article Claims Italians Paid for Peace in Herat Too
"With the building of bridges, wells, schools and aiding agriculture. This zone, which was rural before the arrival of the Italians, has become a model to follow," McKiernan wrote.
The statement ends by denying that the U.S. Embassy in Rome sent a diplomatic protest to the Italian government in June 2008 about these alleged payments.
The article in the Times had stated that the alleged Surobi bribes weren't the only instance of Italians buying peace. The story claims that U.S. intelligence officials had been "flabbergasted" in 2008 when they found out through intercepted telephone conversations that the Italians had been buying off militants in Herat province in the far west of the country.
A U.S. Embassy spokesperson in Rome told ABC News that, as a matter of policy, "we don't discuss diplomatic conversations that may or may not have taken place."
Berlusconi won elections in April 2008 and replaced a center-left government headed by Romano Prodi. This is Berlusconi's fourth government since entering politics in January 1994.
The Italian paper Correiere della Sera today quotes La Russa as saying the Times "once again collects garbage." He says that he was made minister in the summer of 2008 and has never heard anything about Italian secret services paying the Taliban.
He argues that the Taliban's more benevolent behavior towards the Italians is not due to dollar payments but "due to the behavior of our soldiers, which is different to those of other contingents. This is open for all to see, as they have always shown a closeness to the local people and this closeness is mutual. To connect this with the death of the French soldiers, seems absurd to me."
To stress his point, the Italian minister is quoted as describing the situation in a valley west of Kabul, now controlled by Italians but previously controlled by the Turks. "I went to visit them the other day.. The Turks remained in their bunkers, while the Italians go out, they speak to the people and they are gaining trust of the locals."
The Times article quotes Haji Abdul Rahman, a tribal elder from Surobi, who recalls how the benign environment controlled by the Italian contingent became hostile overnight when the French took over. He said people believed that Italians and Taliban had good relations between them but he didn't know the reason.
NATO spokesman James Appathurai refused to comment on the report today. French military spokesman Christophe Prazuck told reporters today that "we have no elements which lead to the confirmation of what the Times is reporting today."
When asked on French TV news Channel 2 if it was a custom to pay for safety in Afghanistan, Prazuck replied: "It is not a French custom."