ROME (Reuters) - The United States and Britain criticized Italy’s hostage deal with the Taliban on Wednesday, saying the release of five guerrillas in exchange for an Italian reporter put NATO troops in danger and encouraged kidnappings.
A senior U.S. administration official said Washington had formally complained to Rome through diplomatic channels for putting pressure on Kabul to release the Taliban, adding the deal “caught the U.S. by surprise”.
A spokeswoman at the British Foreign Office said the deal sent “the wrong signal to prospective hostage-takers”.
Italy, which has 1,900 troops under NATO command in Afghanistan, confirmed on Wednesday that five Taliban had been released and said this was in exchange for the freeing on Monday of reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo, held for two weeks by the Taliban.
A spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said only the Afghan government made the deal “in recognition of the friendship with Italy”.
The U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the release of five “dangerous Taliban operatives” would not have been approved by Washington.
“We did not and do not approve of concessions to terrorists,” the official told Italian reporters in Washington, in comments confirmed to Reuters in Rome. “(The concessions) increase the risk to NATO and Afghan troops and the Afghan people.”
The Taliban, which are reported to have called the hostage deal a “victory”, beheaded Mastrogiacomo’s driver. His translator’s whereabouts are still unknown.
Italy played down any rift with the United States, saying none of the reported U.S. concerns was raised during “positive” talks on Monday between Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington.
The Foreign Ministry noted that the U.S. envoy to the U.N. Security Council also publicly thanked Italy for its role in Afghanistan on Tuesday. The ministry denied in its statement that it received a U.S. complaint through diplomatic channels.
The U.S. official said the freed Taliban were believed to include Ustad Yaser, the head of the Taliban’s cultural wing, and former spokesman Mofti Latifollah Hakimi.
Also freed were the brother of Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah and two other commanders, Hambdullah and Abdol Ghaffar.
The international backlash is the latest headache for Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who has fought hard to keep troops in Afghanistan despite resistance from pacifists within his centre-left coalition.
He even briefly resigned last month after a defeat in the Senate over his foreign policy, including Afghanistan, and needs the Senate next week to approve a refinancing of the mission.
An opinion poll published by Mastrogiacomo’s newspaper, La Repubblica, showed that 51 percent of Italians surveyed supported the exchange, while 41 percent opposed it.
Additional reporting by Paul Majendie in London