Did Italy Pay Million Dollar Ransom for Hostage Release?
Italians are rejoicing Wednesday after two female aid workers arrived home following three weeks of captivity at the hands of militants in Iraq. Simona Pari and Simona Torretta were freed Tuesday and flew to Rome. As they enjoyed what Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi called their moment of joy, Italian newspapers said the government paid a $1 million ransom for their release.
Foreign Minister Franco Frattini denied the reports, saying Rome secured the women’s freedom with what he called its “great system of contacts” in the Arab world.
Meanwhile, the British and French governments are hoping for the release of their citizens held captive in Iraq. There are unconfirmed reports that two French journalists and a British engineer might be freed soon.
A senior Italian politician says he believes a ransom of $1m or more was paid for the release of two female Italian aid workers kidnapped in Iraq. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has said no money was paid. But Gustavo Selva, head of the Italian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said the denial was purely “official”.
Meanwhile, British hostage Ken Bigley has appeared in a new video aired by Arabic TV channel Al-Jazeera, accusing Tony Blair of ignoring his plight. Squatting down in a cage and dressed in an orange jumpsuit, Mr Bigley said his captors did not want to kill him, and he accused the UK prime minister of “lying”. The hardline group which seized Mr Bigley nearly two weeks ago, the Tawhid and Jihad group, beheaded two Americans kidnapped with him.
Allegations of an Italian ransom, first made in a Kuwaiti newspaper, have been widely reported in Italy. The BBC’s Guto Harri in Rome says Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has fuelled the rumours by talking of “a difficult choice which had to be made”. Mr Selva, a member of the Northern League, one of the parties in Italy’s governing coalition, told French radio: “The young women’s life was the most important thing. “In principle, one should not give in to blackmail, but this time I think we had to give in – even though this opens a dangerous path because it is obvious that both for political or criminal reasons, this path can make others want to take others hostage to make some money.”
No kidding. It’s really a no-brainer that giving in to kidnappers’ demands is only going to encourage more kidnappings. It’s Economics 101.
West bears heavy cost for a yay or a nay to hostage traders (Nicolas Rothwell, The Australian)
Yesterday’s events reflects not so much a change of heart by the kidnappers, as a change of tactics on the part of those seeking the release of hostages. Four of the six Egyptian employees of the Orascom mobile phone company captured last week were also freed. Egyptian charge d’affaires in Baghdad Farouk Mabrouk was discreet in his comments: these kidnappings, he said, had been “motivated by financial concerns”.
The two Italian women were almost certainly also captured for money, by a minor group of kidnappers, who then made attempts to sell them “up the line” to larger, well-funded insurgent teams. But according to experts, the publicity given to their fate made them more valuable as ransom bait. Italian public opinion already had been shocked by the execution of a captured Italian journalist, and a high-profile campaign on behalf of the two women focused the national will to see them saved at any cost. Italian mediators have been engaged for weeks in Baghdad, and it was reported with some authority by a Kuwaiti newspaper on Monday that $US1million ($1.4 million) had been handed over to secure their release. This was denied, but without vast passion, by the Italian Government even as Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi staged an airport photo-call with the two women.
Foreign Minister Franco Frattini paid tribute to the various intermediaries and friendly Arab governments that had helped in the bid to free the pair: Jordan’s King Abdullah, who was in Rome this week for meetings, is known to have been the central figure in this process. Much remains unclear about the operation, although some form of large incentive to gain the women’s release was certainly delivered down an arm’s-length channel. The key point, however, is that extended negotiations took place between a Western government that belongs to the US-led coalition and a terrorist group inside Baghdad.
France, which believes it is on the verge of securing freedom for kidnapped journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, has been paying in different coin. While observers believe that money may still change hands, the real payoff was made in advance when French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier declared that an upcoming international conference on Iraq’s future should consider the question of US troop withdrawal. US diplomats in the Middle East are aghast; the hostage-takers put a message on an Islamist website praising France’s constructive moves.
Such cowardice is baffling, given that the governments involved have to understand that whatever short-term gain they achieve will be repaid in multiple future losses.
This story has another odd angle:
One of the two Italian women hostages freed after being held for three weeks in Iraq said on Wednesday she missed the country and her Iraqi friends and wanted to return soon. Aid worker Simona Pari was released on Tuesday with her colleague Simona Torretta and two Iraqi colleagues and flown back to a rapturous welcome in Italy. “I want to send a hello and a big kiss to all the people of Iraq, to all our friends,” a smiling Pari told reporters outside her home in Rimini on Italy’s northeastern Adriatic coast.
Update (1250): There’s bipartisan consensus on this one. Kevin Drum sums it up nicely: “If this is true it’s almost staggeringly stupid. What are they thinking?”
Update (1338): Not so much, if one judges from his commenters–who are almost unanimous in thinking this is a good thing and that it shows how much these governments care, unlike the evil Bushco.
Update (1551): It looks like the Italians are at least good bargainers:
The Kuwaiti daily which predicted the release of two Italian hostages in Iraq said on Wednesday that the captors had originally demanded a $5 million ransom but settled for $1 million in the end. “A cleric mediated to get the amount of the ransom lowered,” said Ali el-Roz, managing editor of leading daily al-Rai al-Aam. “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.” Roz also said in an interview that the clerics mediating for the Italians’ release had strongly urged the captors against killing Italian charity workers Simona Pari and Simona Torretta. “One of the clerics drew up for the kidnappers this image of how negatively killing women would reflect on Arabs and Muslims,” Roz told Reuters.
He said he believed the captors belonged to a Jihadist movement set up shortly after the April 2003 fall of Baghdad in the U.S.-led war which toppled Saddam Hussein. “It is a big faction which includes many members and is concentrated in the Sunni Triangle of Falluja, Baquba and Ramadi and in Baghdad,” Roz said.