Italians believed kidnapped in Afghanistan
KABUL, Afghanistan – Two Italian military personnel were believed to have been kidnapped in western Afghanistan, and police Sunday said they were searching for the pair and their two Afghan staff.At a meeting at the United Nations, Afghan President Hamid Karzai told participants he had information about where the Italians were and would pass the information to Italian authorities, said U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.In northeastern Afghanistan, meanwhile, NATO helicopters fired on a group of suspected insurgents in response to a rocket attack. Four Afghans died and 12 were wounded, the alliance said, and officials were investigating whether the dead and wounded were Afghan police or civilians targeted mistakenly.The two missing Italians, with their Afghan driver and translator, drove through a police checkpoint in the Shindand district of Herat province on Saturday, and they have not had any contact with anyone since, said Gen. Ali Khan Hassanzada, chief of police criminal investigations in western Afghanistan.An official from the Italian embassy in Kabul said the Italians last spoke with officials at their base on Saturday night during “routine contact.” The Italian military in Herat was trying to reach them again.”We believe they have been kidnapped together with two Afghans,” the Italian Defense Ministry said. “The personnel were carrying out liaison activities with local civilian authorities.”Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi told The Associated Press that he did not immediately know if Taliban militants kidnapped the four. Kidnappings by independent criminal gangs have increased around Afghanistan in recent months following reports that foreign governments have paid large ransoms to free kidnapped citizens.In March, five Taliban prisoners were freed in exchange for the release of a kidnapped Italian journalist. The head of the Italian aid agency Emergency has said the Rome government also paid a $2 million ransom last year for a kidnapped Italian photographer – a claim Italian officials did not deny.Though the embassy official said the two Italians were soldiers, Italy’s Defense Ministry called them “military personnel” and the country’s foreign minister called them “Italian functionaries,” raising the possibility the two work as intelligence agents.Conventional military patrols in Afghanistan are typically comprised of several vehicles and many soldiers in case they came under attack. Italian news reports also suggested the two might be intelligence agents or members of special forces.The embassy official said: “They have patrols like that, weekend patrols. They just disappeared after a while.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of embassy policy.The official said the two are warrant officers who were traveling “with a government interpreter on a military mission.”In Italy, the kidnaping prompted calls by a few Communist lawmakers for Italy to withdraw its 2,160-strong force in Afghanistan – appeals rejected by other legislators.Last May, Shindand was the site of a major battle in which the U.S.-led coalition said its troops killed 136 Taliban fighters, though Afghan officials at the time said scores of civilians also died. The Afghan Ministry of Defense has since said that eight civilians were killed.Herat police chief Juma Adil said the Italians were working with a reconstruction team associated with NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.The NATO strike in the northeast was in response to a rocket attack at an Afghan army base in the area.Initial reports indicated they were Afghan police and road construction security guards “dressed in civilian attire and carrying weapons on an uncoordinated patrol,” NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said in a statement.Afghan army commander Gen. Qadam Shah said the 12 wounded were civilians but the identity of those killed was not clear from preliminary reports.NATO also said a soldier was killed by gunfire in eastern Afghanistan on Sunday. The soldier’s nationality was not released, though most troops in that region are American.At the U.N., Karzai met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the Iranian foreign minister and top officials from other nations overseeing a five-year plan that sets benchmarks for Afghanistan on security, economic development and the drug trade.More than 4,400 people – mostly militants – have died in insurgency-related violence this year, according to an Associated Press tally of figures from Afghan and Western officials.At least 600 civilians have died in the fighting, many of them mistakenly hit in airstrikes by Western forces.In southern Zabul province, meanwhile, the Taliban kidnapped three Afghan men accused of spying for the U.S. and executed them, beheading one and shooting the other two, said Shamulzayi district chief Wazir Khan. Khan said the men were innocent.
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