ROME – The Italian government on Tuesday disputed key points in Washington's account of the fatal shooting by U.S. soldiers of an Italian intelligence officer as he was accompanying a just-liberated hostage toward Baghdad airport.
But Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini (search) said claims that U.S. forces intentionally ambushed the car were "clearly baseless," and that the shooting Friday night — which shocked Italians at home and put decades of good U.S.-Italian friendship to the test — was "an accident."
The former hostage, Giuliana Sgrena (search), a journalist for the communist daily Il Manifesto, raised the possibility of an ambush, contending that the United States disapproved of Italy's method of negotiations with kidnappers.
"It was an accident," Fini told lawmakers. "This does not prevent, in fact, it makes it a duty for the government to demand that light be shed on the murky issues, that responsibilities be pinpointed, and, where found, that the culprits be punished."
Fini said he hoped Washington's expressed willingness to cooperate "starting from the next hours will find a first, important, concrete verification."
Shortly after Fini spoke, the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq announced it was ordering a follow-up probe, to be led by a U.S. brigadier general. Italian officials were invited to participate.
U.S. diplomatic sources in Rome said both sides were "cooperatively looking at ways" to "get all of the facts out" on the shooting, and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's office said the premier expressed the government's satisfaction about the new investigation.
Fini said the Italian reconstruction "doesn't fully coincide with what has been communicated by U.S. authorities," including on whether the car was speeding and if the occupants had been warned to stop.
The military intelligence agent, Nicola Calipari, had led negotiations in both the abduction of Sgrena and previous kidnappings of Italians in Iraq. He was killed by one shot that pierced his head as he leaned over Sgrena to protect her from the gunfire as they rode in a rented Toyota Corolla.
Another intelligence agent, who was driving the car, was slightly wounded. Sgrena was hospitalized in Rome with a shoulder wound.
"The car was traveling at a speed that couldn't have been more than 40 kilometers [25 miles] per hour," Fini said. He said that a light was flashed at the car after a curve and that gunfire — lasting 10 or 15 seconds — started immediately afterward, disputing U.S. military claims that several attempts were made to get the car to stop before shooting.
Shortly after the shooting, the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, which controls Baghdad, said that the vehicle was "traveling at high speeds" and "refused to stop at a checkpoint."
It said a U.S. patrol "attempted to warn the driver to stop by hand and arm signals, flashing white lights, and firing warning shots in front of the car," the military said. "When the driver didn't stop, the soldiers shot into the engine block which stopped the vehicle, killing one and wounding two others."
Fini said the Italians informed U.S. intelligence and other American military bodies about the "Italian activity" to win Sgrena's freedom, including the presence of Calipari and the other Italian agent.
Calipari "made all the necessary contacts with the U.S. authorities," including those in charge of airport security and forces patrolling areas near the airport.
In the moments after the shooting, the U.S. soldiers surrounded the car and ordered the surviving Italian agent to get out and get on his knees, about 10 yards away, Fini said.
After the agent, speaking English, finally convinced the soldiers of his identity and that of Sgrena, the minister said, "two young American soldiers approached our official and, in a distraught manner, repeatedly said they were sorry for what happened."
In Baghdad, a video purportedly made by the insurgents who kidnapped Sgrena claimed the group did not receive any ransom for her release.
The tape showed footage of Sgrena shortly before she was freed, and the claim was made by a man off-camera reading a statement. It was not possible to verify the authenticity of the tape, which was dropped off anonymously at the offices of Associated Press Television News in Baghdad.
The voice on the tape said Sgrena was released with no ransom "even though we were offered that."
An Italian Cabinet minister, Rocco Buttiglione, said Monday night that "it is not the policy of the Italian government to pay ransom," but added that "it is possible that humanitarian aid was given to Sunni religious groups" in contact with the kidnappers.