Sun, 06 Mar 2005

From: AFP

Italy demands answer as journalist liberation turns bloody

Sam Dagher, Agence France-Presse, Baghdad

Freed Italian hostage Giuliana Sgrena, wounded by U.S. soldiers, returned home on Saturday as the United States sought to provide answers to an angry Italy over the deadly shooting of her convoy.

As controversy flared, four U.S. soldiers in Iraq's deadly al- Anbar province were killed on Friday despite the military's continuing effort to smother the restive insurgency.

A frail Sgrena, 56, was carried out of her airplane on Saturday morning and greeted by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni and other officials at the capital's Ciampino airport.

A tempest was brewing over the tragic mishap on the road to Baghdad airport late on Friday, when U.S. soldiers opened fire on Sgrena's speeding convoy, leaving dead an Italian secret service agent who had shielded the woman journalist from the bullets.

The U.S. Ambassador to Rome was summoned to the office of Berlusconi to explain the friendly fire incident.

U.S. President George W. Bush later called the prime minister to express his regrets, the White House said, pledging a full investigation into the shooting.

Sgrena, 56, underwent surgery after the shooting, her newspaper, Il Manifesto, said.

According to the U.S. military, the vehicle carrying Sgrena and the agent was traveling at high speed toward a checkpoint and the soldiers who fired on it waved their hands and arms, flashed white lights and fired warning shots in a failed attempt to get it to stop.

"When the driver didn't stop, the soldiers shot into the engine block, which stopped the vehicle, killing one and wounding two others," the 3rd Infantry Division said in a statement.

Another military statement said the car had been traveling in Baghdad "at a high rate of speed" as it approached a checkpoint and that another passenger was killed.

Berlusconi, who called on U.S. Ambassador Mel Sembler to explain the shooting, said 50-year-old secret service officer Nicola Calipari died trying to protect Sgrena from bullets fired by the U.S. soldiers at a checkpoint near Baghdad airport.

"Several shots hit the car," said Berlusconi. "One man was mortally wounded by a bullet. We are petrified and dumbfounded by this fatality."

"It is a pity. This was a joyful moment which made all our co- citizens happy, which has been transformed into profound pain by the death of a person who behaved so bravely," the prime minister added.

Italy has 3,000 troops in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and the death will cast a new shadow over the prime minister's support for Washington.

The White House said Bush had called Berlusconi from Air Force One "to express his regret about the incident that occurred earlier today.

"The president assured prime minister Berlusconi that the incident will be fully investigated."

State Department spokeswoman Darla Jordan also said "this incident will be investigated fully".

The journalist was kidnapped on Feb. 4 outside a Baghdad mosque by an Iraqi group that had called on Rome to withdraw its troops from Iraq.

Il Manifesto, a left-wing daily which opposed the U.S. invasion in March 2003, said Sgrena underwent surgery on her lungs, but that her life was not in danger.

"There's little to say. The Americans nearly killed her," Sgrena's companion, Pier Scolari, was quoted as saying by ANSA.

The latest U.S. casualties were in the vast al-Anbar province in the western part of the country, where marines fought a bitter and bloody war three months ago to rout out insurgents in the former rebel bastion of Fallujah.

A U.S. military statement said the soldiers died while "conducting security and stability operations" in the province without providing details or exact location. This brought to 1,499 the number of soldiers killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion two years ago, according to a Pentagon tally.

Despite the end of major hostilities in Fallujah, U.S. troops continue to conduct operations around the province's capital Ramadi and towns along the Euphrates river.

An operation dubbed River Blitz launched at the end of February has netted more than 100 suspects and large weapon caches. The military had previously announced the death of two marines in Anbar at the time of the operation.

In other violence, five Iraqi soldiers were killed in an overnight mortar attack on Saturday on their base in Duluiyah, north of the capital, said an Iraqi army officer. Another soldier was killed and three wounded later in a roadside bomb in Tikrit, according to Iraqi police.

A Bulgarian soldier was killed on Friday in the south of Iraq while returning to base from a patrol, the Bulgarian defense ministry said. He was the eighth Bulgarian to be killed while serving in Iraq.

In other developments, Iraq's main political factions are expected to meet again on Saturday to discuss formation of a new governing coalition more than a month after the historic Jan. 30 elections.

The main Shiite and Kurdish alliances were locked in negotiations over a new Cabinet and Kurdish conditions for their support.

Two small Shiite parties bolted the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) coalition list on Friday, exposing chinks in the juggernaut that the dark-horse candidate to lead the new government, interim prime minister Iyad Allawi, is hoping to exploit.

A Western diplomat warned that the UIA, an amalgam of religious and secular factions, risked unraveling if the talks dragged on too long.

Saad Jawad, a UIA member, said the list was still confident it would form a government and expected to add small parties to its coalition that would give the Shiite juggernaut 150 seats in the parliament.