Kidnapped Italian agents freed in Afghanistan

KABUL Mon Sep 24, 2007 5:12pm EDT

A NATO helicopter flies over in Kabul, September 21, 2007. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

A NATO helicopter flies over in Kabul, September 21, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Ahmad Masood

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KABUL (Reuters) - Two Italian military intelligence officers kidnapped in Afghanistan were freed on Monday during a raid by NATO-led troops in which nine kidnappers and an Afghan hostage were killed, Italy's defense minister said.

The officers were wounded during the raid to free them in southwestern Farah province and were taken to hospital, Arturo Parisi told the Italian parliament. One of them was in a serious condition with gunshot wounds to the head and chest.

Both men went missing two days ago in neighboring Herat province.

One of the Afghans kidnapped with the Italians was killed in the raid and the other was injured, while nine kidnappers were killed, Parisi told the Chamber of Deputies.

"The criminals were absolutely determined to respond with guns up to the ultimate consequences," he said.

Parisi said the fate of a possible 10th kidnapper was unclear. NATO in Kabul said all the kidnappers were killed.

There were no injuries reported among the Italian and British troops who took part in the blitz, Parisi said.

An Italian diplomat in Kabul said it was not clear who the abductors were. The police chief for Farah province, Abdul Rahman Sarjang, said he suspected the kidnappers were members of a criminal gang.

Taliban insurgents, who have been behind a series of abductions of Afghans and foreigners in recent months, had said they had not kidnapped the Italians, but the militants are on the run and do not have regular contacts with their comrades.

A NATO spokesman in Kabul, Major Charles Anthony, said the alliance had evidence showing the kidnappers were Taliban.

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said the rescue operation served as a warning.

The operation represented "a bad defeat for the kidnappers and also a warning for the future. We never had a moment of uncertainty".

Asked if the kidnappings would lead Italy to take troops out of Afghanistan, he said: "This certainly isn't the moment to change policy."

Italy has 2,200 troops in Afghanistan. More than 600 are in western Afghanistan running the regional NATO-led command.

NATO CONVOY ATTACKED

Herat, bordering Iran, is one of the most peaceful provinces in Afghanistan, but in Farah to the south there has been a steady rise in Taliban activity in recent months.

Spain said two NATO soldiers were killed on Monday after a blast hit their vehicle in Farah.

Defense Minister Jose Antonio Alonso said another six personnel were injured -- three badly. Their Afghan interpreter was also killed. One of the dead was a Spaniard, the other was from Ecuador.

Violence has escalated to its worst level in the past 19 months in Afghanistan, the bloodiest period since Taliban's overthrow from power in 2001.

On Sunday, Taliban fighters ambushed a convoy carrying guards of a private U.S. security firm in Farah, the interior ministry said.

Three guards and 21 Taliban were killed in a clash that followed the ambush while 20 guards were missing, the ministry said on Monday.

A provincial official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that 13 guards had died in the attack.

In another ambush, unknown armed men in the relatively secure northeast killed seven policemen and three civil servants on Sunday, police there said.

(Additional reporting by newsrooms in ROME and MADRID and Reuters stringers in Afghanistan)

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