Sunday, August 28, 2005

Now we know what aid workers are for

Last September we covered the odd case of the two Italian aid workers who had been abducted by an unknown group of Iraqi “insurgents”. We wrote at the time about the not unpleasant life the two Signorinas, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta had led with lots of meetings and dinners with, presumably, other NGO workers and those Iraqis who could speak Italian, as the ladies at that time were still ignorant of Arabic.

The latter was particularly odd as they had been in Iraq for some years with an organization that had set up shop under Saddam. What kind of aid they provided and to whom was not revealed in the stories at the time.

Then suddenly, they were kidnapped on September 7, in an operation that seemed to target them specifically. At the time we speculated that there may be a completely new Iraqi network of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish activists, who were simply sick of the parasitical NGOs.

On September 28 the two young ladies were released in rather mysterious circumstances, repaired to Italy and immediately began learning Arabic and conducting anti-American propaganda. They apparently “understood” their captors’ motivation. No doubt they felt the pain as well.

The rest of the world, including the Italian media, not having quite so many sensibilities, speculated rather vulgarly on how much ransom had the Italian government or, perhaps, Signor Berlusconi himself, paid.

These suspicions were confirmed in subsequent events, when French journalists were released, apparently, after the payment of ransom, and the Guiliana Sgrena incident when a left-wing (indeed, Communist) Italian journalist was kidnapped and released after suspected payment of ransom, and with the operation not revealed to the Americans, tragedy struck. The car tried to get through and American military check point was shot at and an Italian agent was killed.

While Signora Sgrena made the most of it, coming up with ever more picturesque and easily disproved stories of Americans practically destroying the car in their desire to kill her (Why would anybody go to those lengths, one wonders, with that many left-wing Italian journalists running around?), more sober commentators once again raised the question of ransom and whether it was wise to go on paying it.

So, we assumed that the real purpose of aid workers and journalists in Iraq was to become part of a fund-raising exercise for various terrorist groups.

It seems, however, that the situation is even worse. The excellent Captain’s Quarters blog calls attention to a story that appeared on AP. It seems that the ransom was not paid in money (well, it may have been in that as well) but in medical aid and protection to “insurgents”, that is terrorists who kill and maim Iraqis as well as coalition soldiers.

According to Maurizio Scelli the outgoing chief of the Italian Red Cross (a supposedly non-political organization),

“The mediators asked to save the lives of four alleged terrorists, wanted by the Americans, who were wounded in combat. We hid them and brought them to Red Cross doctors who operated on them.”

In order to achieve this laudable aim the terrorists were hidden under blankets and boxes of medicine and smuggled through American check points. Something of an abuse of the Red Cross insignia and privileges, most of us would say.

According to Signor Scelli, Berlusconi’s office knew of the deal, which was kept secret from the Americans and, though not directly involved, authorized it. The government is sort of denying knowing what happened.

The Americans have, sensibly, put a blanket ban on all forms of ransom, which the British, for instance, have kept to. It cannot be a coincidence that after a few cases, no Americans or British have been kidnapped. (The case of the American journalist Steven Vincent in Basra remains open.)

Signor Scelli explained that keeping the negotiations from the Americans had nothing to do with their instructions about ransom but everything with the demands presented by the mediators, the safety of the hostages, and of the Red Cross personnel. Clearly, the kidnappers and the mediators knew whom they should be dealing with.

It is very odd, but Signor Scelli seems unable to draw certain conclusions from his behaviour, though Captain’s Quarters, as expected, does:

“How many other Iraqi terrorists have the Italians given safe conduct and transported in secret to avoid our capture? How many Iraqis and Americans have died at the hands of those terrorists that Italian manuevering saved from capture?”

And what does Signor Scelli think he is achieving, apart from the probable murder of many more Iraqis, which cannot, surely, be his aim? Every negotiation of this kind, every cent paid in ransom, every capitulation puts more Italian lives in danger. Those “insurgents” a.k.a. terrorists are not stupid. They know who will pay up.

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