ROME – The Italian government denied a newspaper report Thursday that its secret services paid the Taliban thousands of dollars to keep an area in Afghanistan controlled by the Italians safe.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi's office called the report in the Times of London "completely groundless." The defense minister said the paper published "rubbish."
The Times reported that Italy had paid "tens of thousands of dollars" to Taliban commanders and warlords in the Surobi district, east of the capital, Kabul. The newspaper cites Western military officials, including high-ranking officers at NATO.
It accused Rome of failing to inform its allies, misleading the French, who took over the Surobi district in mid-2008, into thinking the area was quiet and safe. Shortly thereafter, the French contingent was hit with an ambush that killed 10 soldiers and had big political repercussions back in Paris.
NATO spokesman James Appathurai and French government officials refused to comment on the report.
"The Berlusconi government has never authorized nor has it allowed any form of payment toward members of the Taliban insurgence," a statement by the premier's office said. It says it does not know of any such payment by the previous government.
Berlusconi won elections in April 2008, replacing a center-left government headed by Romano Prodi.
The statement noted that in the first half of last year the Italian contingent suffered several attacks, including in the Surobi district where one soldier was killed in February 2008.
Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa fired back at the Times, saying the newspaper "collects rubbish."
In an interview with Corriere della Sera, La Russa said that in the summer of 2008 "I had been minister for a short time, I've never received news from the secret services of payment to the chiefs of the Taliban."
La Russa said that a benevolent attitude toward the Italians who serve in Afghanistan is due to "the behavior of our military, which is very different compared to that of other contingents."
"They have always showed they are close to the people and they get the same in return," La Russa said of the Italian soldiers. "To connect all of this with the death of the French soldiers ... seems an absurdity to me."
Italy has about 2,800 soldiers stationed in Herat and in the capital of Kabul.