Source AP ©

Italian government paid US$2 million to Taliban for photographer last year

The government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi paid US$2 million to free an Italian photographer last year, an aid group involved in negotiating the release of Italian hostages in Afghanistan said.

The Foreign Ministry refused to comment.

Gino Strada, founder of the non-governmental organization Emergency, told Sky Tg24 in an interview on Sunday that the Italian government had paid US$2 million to secure the release of freelance photographer Gabriele Torsello, who was abducted Oct. 12 and freed Nov. 3.

He made an identical claim on RAI state television Monday.

The Taliban said on Sunday that it had beheaded the Afghan interpreter of another Italian journalist who was freed after a much-criticized prisoner swap with the Taliban last month.

The interpreter, Ajmal Naqshbandi, had been kidnapped along with Daniele Mastrogiacomo of the Rome daily La Repubblica and a driver on March 5. The driver was beheaded and Mastrogiacomo was released March 19 after five Taliban militants were released.

Strada is pressing for the release of Rahmatullah Hanefi, who worked in Emergency's hospital in Helmand province's capital Lashkar Gah. He was believed to have been taken into Afghan custody after Mastrogiacomo's release.

The hospital had played a key role in negotiating Mastrogiacomo's freedom.

On Sunday, Sayed Ansari, a spokesman for Afghanistan's intelligence service, accused Hanefi of helping the Taliban kidnap the three.

Strada told Sky that Prodi's government knows that Hanefi was trustworthy because he had been entrusted with US$2 million to deliver to the Taliban to free Torsello.

"I would have expected the government would have issued a statement saying how trustworthy Hanefi was," Strada said. "The government knows well, since during the last hostage-taking, that of Torsello, Hanefi was entrusted with exactly US$2 million to take and bring back Torsello - and obviously it wasn't our money but that of the Italian government."

He said many other people would have taken the money and run. "Rahmatullah didn't disappear," he said.