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Hostage Release Roils Italy Elections

Liberation of three Italians held in Iraq days before polls gives boost to Berlusconi's sagging support. Some media question the timing.

June 13, 2004|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — Joy over the liberation of three Italians who spent two months as hostages in Iraq has lapsed into bitter political debate leading into elections this weekend.

The government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi rejected accusations Friday that it was using the rescue of the hostages to bolster the ruling party's sagging support.

Italians were to vote Saturday and Sunday in European Parliament elections, as well as in local balloting to choose mayors and other municipal leaders throughout the country.

Berlusconi's eager support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and his decision to maintain Italian troops there have cost him support at home. Polls show that Italians overwhelmingly opposed the war and, by a smaller margin, want their soldiers to be withdrawn. Berlusconi and his right-wing Forza Italia were expected by many to pay the price this weekend.

Suddenly, however, Berlusconi and his party are enjoying a significant bump in surveys thanks to the freed hostages, pollsters said. The prime minister was quick to take credit for Tuesday's bloodless military operation mounted by U.S. Special Forces that freed the three men, who were working in Iraq as private security guards.

"Something is fishy," the leading daily La Repubblica said Friday, as several newspapers and opposition politicians raised questions about the hostages' freedom and the way the news has been allegedly manipulated.

La Repubblica and other left-leaning media claimed Friday that the Italians were freed after a $9-million ransom was paid. They quoted Gino Strada, an Italian humanitarian aid worker who has spent a lot of time in Iraq and reportedly took part in negotiations to win the release.

Berlusconi's office issued a vehement denial of the reports.

"No deal was cut," said Gianfranco Fini, the deputy premier filling in for Berlusconi, who was in the United States for the summit of the Group of 8 industrial nations.

"Not a cent was paid," Defense Minister Antonio Martino said.

Opponents say it is just too convenient a coincidence that the hostages, after two months in captivity and at a time when many Italians had given them up for dead, were freed four days before the elections began -- handing Berlusconi what La Repubblica called a "fantastic trump card." The timing is especially suspect if a ransom was paid, the doubters add.

Piero Fassino, head of the largest opposition party, Democrats of the Left, accused Berlusconi of attempting to make political hay out of the liberation.

"Let's leave the hostages out of the election campaign," Fassino said. "I hope the prime minister and his government apply good taste."

The Italians were freed along with a Polish businessman kidnapped a week earlier. Some reports suggest that interrogation of the Pole's Iraqi staff led U.S. and allied investigators to the hide-out where the hostages were being held.

Berlusconi, who has survived several challenges to become Italy's longest-ruling prime minister since World War II, was expected to suffer losses in the vote -- until the hostage release.

His party lost control of Rome to the center-left opposition in elections last year. The vote for European Parliament representatives was seen as a kind of referendum on Berlusconi's Iraq policy. Italy will send 78 people to the powerful assembly, and many candidates are campaigning on the war issue.

Furthermore, Berlusconi is, in effect, running against archrival Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission and a leading figure in the rival Olive Tree coalition in Italy. Prodi is considered one of the few politicians who could pose a serious challenge to Berlusconi, who, as one of the world's richest men, controls a wide swath of Italian media and business interests.

Berlusconi owns three Italian television networks; the government controls three others. Coverage of the hostages' rescue has been extensive.

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