Italy denies paying Taliban to keep peace in Afghan area

Newspaper says Rome failed to inform allies

By Alessandra Rizzo
Associated Press / October 16, 2009

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ROME - Italy and NATO yesterday denied a newspaper report that Italian intelligence secretly paid the Taliban thousands of dollars to keep the peace in an Afghan area under Italian control.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s office called the report in the Times of London “completely groundless.’’ The Italian defense minister denounced it as “rubbish’’ and said he wanted to sue the newspaper.

In Kabul, a US spokesman for NATO forces in Afghanistan denied the allegations. “We don’t do bribes,’’ Colonel Wayne Shanks said. “We don’t pay the insurgents.’’

“The article has unnamed sources, innuendo, and hyperbole,’’ Shanks said. “We see no evidence of any of the accusations.’’

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 cited Western military officials, including high-ranking officers at NATO, speaking on condition of anonymity.

It accused Rome of failing to inform its allies about the payments and of misleading the French, who took over the Surobi district in mid-2008, thinking the area was quiet and safe. Shortly afterward, French troops were hit with an ambush that killed 10 soldiers and had significant political repercussions back in Paris.

French Defense Ministry spokesman Christophe Prazuck said he had “no information to confirm what has been written in the Times’’ and stressed that allied troops in Afghanistan share information and have mutual trust.

The Aug. 18, 2008, ambush of the French in a mountain pass was the biggest combat loss for international forces in Afghanistan in more than three years. The attack, which also injured 21 people, shocked the French public and French officials came under heavy pressure to explain how the troops got caught in such a well-planned and unusually bloody ambush.

A statement by Berlusconi’s office refuted the report.

“The Berlusconi government has never authorized nor has it allowed any form of payment toward members of the Taliban insurgence,’’ the statement said, adding that 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.

Speaking through a spokeswoman, Prodi said he “is not aware and was never aware of the events reported by the Times.’’ His defense minister, Arturo Parisi, rejected the assertions “with disdain’’ saying in a statement that they were “groundless.’’

Parisi “never authorized nor allowed, nor was ever informed of any form of payment to groups of Taliban terrorists,’’ the statement said. Still, Italy of Values, a small opposition party and former Prodi ally, called on the government to answer questions on the report in Parliament.

Berlusconi’s statement noted that the Italian contingent was praised at the time by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. It quoted the former US commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, as saying the Italians had achieved results in the area, especially in the construction of wells, bridges, schools, and through aid to the agriculture.

The statement also noted that in the first half of last year, the Italian contingent had several attacks, and one soldier was killed in Surobi in February 2008.

The statement also denied the US ambassador to Italy made a formal complaint in June 2008 over alleged payments to the Taliban, as the Times reported.