ROME – Italy's Red Cross (search) treated four Iraqi insurgents with the knowledge of the Italian government last year and hid them from U.S. forces in exchange for the freedom of two kidnapped aid workers, a top Italian Red Cross official said in an interview published Thursday.
Maurizio Scelli, the outgoing chief of the Italian Red Cross, told the Turin newspaper La Stampa that he kept the deal secret from U.S. officials, complying with "a nonnegotiable condition" imposed by Iraqi mediators who helped him secure the release of Italians Simona Pari and Simona Torretta. They were abducted in Baghdad Sept. 7 and freed Sept. 28.
"The mediators asked us to save the lives of four alleged terrorists wanted by the Americans who were wounded in combat," Scelli was quoted as saying. "We hid them and brought them to Red Cross doctors, who operated on them."
They took the wounded insurgents to a Baghdad hospital in a jeep and an ambulance, smuggling them through two U.S. checkpoints under blankets and boxes of medicines, Scelli said.
Also as part of the deal, four Iraqi children with leukemia were brought to Italy for treatment, he said.
Scelli said he informed Premier Silvio Berlusconi's government of the deal and of the decision to hide it from the United States through Gianni Letta, an undersecretary in charge of Italy's hostage crises in Iraq.
"Keeping quiet with the Americans about our efforts to free the hostages was an irrevocable condition to guarantee the safety of the hostages and ourselves," he told La Stampa. He said Letta agreed.
Officials at the Italian Red Cross headquarters in Rome said Scelli was out of the office and could not be immediately contacted.
In a statement Thursday, the Italian government stopped short of denying it knew about the deal. It said Scelli acted independently and that the government "never conditioned or oriented his action, which ... was developed in complete autonomy."
The statement also did not directly address if Italy had kept the United States in the dark about Scelli's efforts but reiterated that Italy has always maintained a "full and reciprocal" cooperation with its American allies in Iraq.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack sidestepped questions on whether the United States has asked the Italian government for an explanation.
"Our views, the United States policies with respect to negotiation with hostage-takers are well known. We don't do it," McCormack said, adding that Rome and Washington are "close friends" and allies in the war on terror.
The head of the Italian parliamentary commission overseeing secret services, Enzo Bianco, said the commission would hold hearings soon with Scelli and government representatives, news agency ANSA reported.
Opposition leaders called on the government to tell Parliament what really happened and contended the alleged deal endangered Red Cross neutrality.
"Scelli conducted an improper negotiation using the symbol of the Red Cross as a shield," said opposition lawmaker Tana De Zulueta. "The Red Cross is obliged to offer assistance to all parties involved in a conflict."
The International Red Cross said it was not involved in or informed of Scelli's activities. It said the Italian Red Cross is an independent organization that doesn't answer to the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross.
"Scelli worked mostly in a personal capacity," said spokeswoman Antonella Notari. "I would not qualify what he did as an Italian Red Cross activity."
Notari would not comment on whether Scelli's initiatives violated the ICRC's pledge of neutrality, saying the commission needed more information from the Italian branch.
Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Labeed Abbawi, in Rome, declined to comment about Scelli's allegations, saying "we were not part of that negotiation."
"All we ask countries is that they should not give any political or financial concessions" to insurgents, he added.