Abducted Italian troops freed in Afghan raid

Two Italian soldiers kidnapped in western Afghanistan two days ago were freed in a raid by NATO-led forces early on Monday, Italy’s Defence Ministry said.

The soldiers were wounded during the raid to free them and they were taken to a hospital, the ministry said. One of them was in serious condition with gunshot wounds in the head and the chest, Italian media reported.

“In a raid by ISAF forces in the early hours of the morning the two soldiers who had been kidnapped last Saturday have been freed in the province of Farah,” the ministry said in a statement, referring to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Defence Minister Antonio Parisi told state television Italian and British soldiers had taken part in the raid.

Sergio De Gregorio, chairman of the defence committee in Italy’s Senate, said at least seven of the suspected kidnappers were killed in the raid.

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.

“It seems that our two soldiers were going to be handed over to the Taliban commander in the area,” De Gregorio told Sky Italia television.

Italy has some 2,200 troops in Afghanistan. More than 600 are in western Afghanistan running the regional ISAF command.

The ministry said on Sunday it believed the two soldiers had been abducted while on patrol, together with two Afghans. It had lost contact a day earlier with the two who were operating in the Shindand district of Herat province and were responsible for relations with civil authorities.

News of the abduction had prompted some leftist members in Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s coalition to renew calls for a withdrawal of Italy’s troops, but Prodi rejected them.

“This does not change the Italian government’s position on the mission in Afghanistan,” he told reporters at the United Nations in New York.

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.

Taliban insurgents have suffered heavy casualties in clashes with Western forces in Afghanistan and have switched to suicide bombing and kidnapping to undermine popular faith in the ability of the government and its Western allies to deliver security.

(Additional reporting by Antonella Cinelli)