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October 16, 2009

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Italy denies report that it paid Taliban secretly to keep peace

ITALY and NATO have denied a report that Italian intelligence secretly paid the Taliban thousands of dollars to maintain peace in an area in Afghanistan that was under Italian control.

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

In Kabul, a United States 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 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, into thinking the area was quiet and safe. Shortly afterward, French troops were hit with an ambush that killed 10 soldiers and had major political repercussions 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 enjoy mutual trust.

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

The statement by Berlusconi's office noted that in the first half of last year the Italian contingent suffered several attacks, including in the Surobi district, where one soldier was killed in February 2008.

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

Ignazio La Russa, the Italian defense minister, said the benevolent attitude toward Italians serving in Afghanistan was due to the fact that they spent time talking to locals and ultimately win their trust.

The report was "offensive to the deaths we have suffered in Afghanistan, to our injured ones and to the daily level of commitment of our soldiers," La Russa said.

Italy has about 2,800 soldiers stationed in Herat and in Kabul. It has suffered 21 deaths in Afghanistan.


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