Afghanistan Met Taliban Demands to Secure Italian's Release

The Afghan government agreed to some Taliban demands in a deal to secure the release of a kidnapped Italian journalist, but one prisoner the militants wanted freed preferred to remain in jail, an official said Tuesday.

President Hamid Karzai told authorities to find a solution to the kidnapping, citing Afghanistan's good relations with Italy, said his spokesman, Mohammad Karim Rahimi.

Daniele Mastrogiacomo was freed Monday after two weeks in captivity. The reporter's Afghan driver, who also was seized, was beheaded, and the fate of his translator is not known.

About 150 angry relatives of the driver, identified as Sayed Agha, demonstrated Tuesday in Helmand province against the government, saying it ignored his plight to focus on securing Mastrogiacomo's release.

Rahimi said some of the kidnappers' demands "were accepted."

"You see the result of it — the journalist was released," Rahimi told a news conference. "This was an exceptional case, and it will not happen again."

Rahimi repeatedly refused to say whether any prisoners had been exchanged for Mastrogiacomo, although he said that one prisoner the Taliban wanted freed refused to take part in the deal.

"He himself didn't want to be exchanged. He didn't want to be released through this process, in exchange with the Italian journalist," Rahimi said, without identifying the prisoner.

Two Afghan officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue, said prisoners had been released in exchange for Mastrogiacomo. One official said five prisoners were released; the other said three had been freed.

Mullah Abdul Rahim, a purported Taliban commander in Helmand province, told The Associated Press last week that the Taliban wanted at least two men released — Mohammad Hanif, a Taliban spokesman captured by Afghan officials in January; and Hanif's predecessor, Mullah Hakim Latifi, who was arrested in 2005 in Pakistan.

Mastrogiacomo, who writes for Italy's La Repubblica newspaper, and the two Afghans traveling with him were kidnapped March 5 in Helmand province's Nad Ali district. Taliban insurgents claimed responsibility.

In Italy, questions surfaced about how the journalist's freedom had been secured.

Ezio Mauro, editor of La Repubblica, said he did not know whether a ransom was paid.

Alfredo Mantovano, an opposition senator and member of a parliamentary committee that oversees Italy's secret service agencies, pointed to unconfirmed reports in Afghan media that five Taliban extremists had been released in exchange for Mastrogiacomo, and seized the opportunity to attack Italy's government.

"Italy is in Afghanistan ... to help with the country's reconstruction, achieving that also by combating terrorism," Mantovano was quoted as saying by the ANSA news agency. "Now it turns out that terrorists are released in exchange for the release of an Italian. There are no known precedents for that in Italian missions abroad."

Mastrogiacomo, 52, has worked for the newspaper since 2002 as a correspondent in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Khan Jan, uncle of the slain driver, said there was no indication the government did anything to try to get the Afghans released.

"Yesterday he (Karzai) was talking about the Italian guy, but he didn't say anything about the Afghan driver," Jan said. "Nobody there was trying to free him. ... Now we know he's dead, we are very upset, and we didn't even get the dead body."