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U.S. Raid Rescues Captives in Iraq

Three Italian guards and a Polish construction firm manager are freed in a reportedly bloodless commando assault.

June 09, 2004|Peter Y. Hong and Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — In a raid south of the capital, U.S. Special Forces on Tuesday freed three Italian hostages held for almost two months and a Pole abducted last week, officials said.

The commander of ground forces in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, said some of the kidnappers were seized during the operation, which he said was conducted without a shot being fired.

"At this point in time, the hostages are in coalition control, in good hands and in good health," Sanchez told a news conference in Baghdad, flanked by Italian and Polish diplomats.

The raid was the first successful rescue of foreign hostages in Iraq by military force. The same day, however, gunmen kidnapped seven Turkish citizens who they claimed were working for the U.S. occupation, bringing the number of foreigners held to more than 20. There have been at least 40 such abductions during the occupation.

Terrorists also continued their campaign against Iraqi officials and the U.S.-led coalition with car bomb attacks that killed 15 people and wounded dozens more in two cities. Six European soldiers died when their munitions truck exploded, but it was unknown whether the truck was fired on or detonated on its own.

The three Italians were among four private security guards seized in April. Their captors had sought to pressure Italy into pulling its troops out of Iraq. They shot the fourth hostage, also an Italian, to death soon after the kidnapping and released a videotape of the slaying.

Sanchez gave few details of the operation, but said there were no negotiations.

Italian authorities said the raid was the work of U.S. commandos.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, speaking to Italian state television aboard a flight to the Group of 8 summit in Georgia, took credit for the success of the operation, saying he had acted wisely in refusing militants' demands to withdraw Italian troops from Iraq. "This is a happy ending for what could otherwise have been a tragic case," Berlusconi said.

The Italian government has been one of Washington's strongest supporters in the Iraq war.

Berlusconi said the military operation unfolded after the hostage-takers' hide-out was detected and it was determined that the site was being guarded by a small number of insurgents.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said he thought the hide-out was on Baghdad's southern outskirts.

"Initially, we thought it would be best to wait a few days to find a solution through local political and religious leaders," Berlusconi told RAI television.

"When it became clear that this solution was impossible and we realized that, in view of the few insurgents guarding them, a break-in would not cause bloodshed, we decided to take responsibility to green-light the operation," he said. "Once [the captors] saw they were surrounded, they realized it would be pointless to resist."

Berlusconi said his government did not negotiate with the insurgents. However, his representatives had repeatedly turned to local tribal, religious and political leaders who served as go-betweens in making contact with the kidnappers and seeking the hostages' safety. Italian media reported that the government was offering to pay a ransom, which officials denied.

The freed Italians -- Maurizio Agliana, Umberto Cupertino and Salvatore Stefio -- and a fourth Italian, Fabrizio Quattrocchi, were seized April 12 between Baghdad and Fallouja by a group calling itself the Green Phalanges of Muhammad.

Two days later, the captors shot Quattrocchi to death after the Italian government refused to entertain demands to withdraw its nearly 3,000 troops from Iraq. The killing of Quattrocchi was videotaped and a copy was sent to Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language satellite broadcaster, which decided that the images were too grisly to show.

The kidnappers urged the Italian people to protest their government's policies. Families of the men and thousands of their supporters complied later with a huge demonstration in Rome on April 29.

Gianfranco Fini, Italy's deputy prime minister, visited the families of the hostages Tuesday to convey the good news, hugging weeping parents and siblings. Italian television interrupted its regular programming to report the release.

In Italy, slain hostage Quattrocchi is viewed in mythic terms. He is said to have struggled to remove his blindfold minutes before he was shot, proclaiming: "I will show you how an Italian dies."

ANSA, the Italian state news agency, reported that the other hostages were unaware that Quattrocchi had been killed, though it was not clear why they thought he had vanished.

The Polish hostage, Jerzy Kos, 64, is a manager with a Polish construction company. Adam Wielgosz, an official with the Polish Embassy in Baghdad who appeared with Sanchez, called the raid a "very, very good example of the cooperation in the fight of terrorism also here in Iraq" and said, "I am happy that our colleague will be soon in Poland with his family and friends."

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