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Hostage free from Taliban

March 29th, 2007

An Italian journalist was exchanged for five Taliban prisoners after being held hostage in southern Afghanistan.

This is the first time prisoners have been exchanged since the United States and allies invaded Iraq. The hostage, Daniele Mastrogiamcomo, 52, writes for the leftist newspaper La Repubblica.

The U.S. and Great Britain were quick to declare their disapproval. The exchange sends “the wrong signal to prospective hostage takers,” a spokeswoman for the British Foreign Office told Reuters, according to The New York Times.

The worry is future captives, specifically reporters, will be at greater risk to terrorists because of the opportunity to regain comrades.

Mastrogiacomo was abducted while driving with an interpreter and a driver to interview a Taliban commander.

He was forced to watch a Taliban soldier decapitate his driver. The whereabouts of the interpreter remain unknown. Italy did not act alone in the prisoner exchange. The Afghan government played a significant role.

A spokesman for Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, told reporters the release was an “exceptional measure taken because we value our relations and friendship with Italy.”

Italian prime minister Romano Prodi caught the U.S. by surprise freeing five Taliban operatives, according to The NY Times.

However the U.S. could not stop the exchange because the captives were held by the Afghan government and not by the American military or NATO.

The U.S. has had strained relations with Italy due to the recent indictment of 26 Americans in the kidnapping of a radical Egyptian cleric.

The Washington Post reports that the Taliban view the hostage deal as a “victory” with the release of former spokesman Mofti Latifolla Hakimi.

Three other Taliban commanders were also freed as part of the exchange. This was not the first time Italy has negotiated with terrorists.

The former Italian Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, paid cash for the freedom of three hostages in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. Domestic support seems to have played a role in the decision with much pressure to end foreign involvement in Iraq.

According to the New York Times the kidnapping of Mr. Mastrogiacomo came at a perilous time for “Prodi’s already fragile government, which fell briefly last month, partly because of a lack of support inside his coalition for the presence of nearly 2,000 Italian troops in Afghanistan.”

Mr. Prodi faces a crucial vote on financing Italian troops in Iraq, which might have been more difficult if Mastrogiacomo had not been recovered. Prodi resigned last month when his foreign policy proposal was defeated by the Senate, according to The NY Times.

La Repubblica, Mastrogiacomo’s newspaper, showed 51 percent of Italians surveyed supported the exchange, while 41 percent opposed it.