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5 Taliban swapped for captive journalist

Deal for Italian's freedom criticized

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Italy's deputy foreign affairs minister confirmed yesterday that the Afghan government released five Taliban prisoners to win the freedom of a reporter who had been kidnapped in lawless Helmand province.

Daniele Mastrogiacomo, who writes for Italy's La Repubblica newspaper, was freed Monday after two weeks in captivity. He had been seized with his Afghan driver, who was beheaded, and his translator, whose whereabouts are unknown.

Though the Afghan government called the swap "an exceptional case," the deal was sharply criticized.

"When we create situations where you can buy the freedom of Taliban fighters when you catch a journalist, in the short term there will be no journalists anymore," the Dutch foreign minister, Maxime Verhagen, said during a visit to Kabul yesterday.

In Washington, a senior State Department official said the United States was pleased the journalist had been released unharmed, but was troubled by possible ramifications of the swap.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to address the media, said US diplomats told Italian counterparts in Rome and Washington that the trade raised serious safety concerns and increased the risk of kidnappings in Afghanistan.

Among other issues, the official said five Taliban operatives were now free to resume extremist activities and that their release could encourage further abduction.

The official also denied Italian claims that the United States had been consulted about the conditions of the journalist's release.

Nancy Beck, a State Department spokeswoman, would say only that "it is US policy not to make concessions to terrorist demands."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's spokesman has said the exchange came about after Karzai told authorities to find a solution to the kidnapping, citing Afghanistan's good relations with Italy.

"If things are done to save a human life . . . this is a positive thing," Mastrogiacomo said yesterday when asked about the controversy surrounding his release.

"I believe that what has been done doesn't violate the sovereignty of a state or the autonomy of its foreign policy decisions," he said, referring to both Italy and Afghanistan.

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.