Italy to pay tribute. “Everyone pays. It has been done for centuries and centuries.” Sure. There have always been appeasers, all the way back to Aethelred the Unready. From The Guardian, :
Three Italians held hostage in Iraq were poised for release last night amid growing indications that Silvio Berlusconi’s government has been negotiating a controversial ransom deal.
Top Italian government officials anticipated “positive news” within hours, while UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi predicted an imminent release.
“We confidently expect something to happen which should become clear in the coming hours,” Mr Berlusconi said. His foreign minister, Franco Frattini, said: “We are waiting for positive news.”
Asked if the way to get the hostages freed was to pay up, the Italian interim governor of Iraq’s Dhi Qar province, Barbara Contini, said: “Everyone pays. It has been done for centuries and centuries.”
Mr Brahimi, who was in Rome yesterday for talks with officials, said: “I think there is every reason to hope for a positive solution quickly.”
Payment of a ransom would meet with an angry response in London and Washington where it would be seen as encouraging further kidnappings. But the release of the hostages, by whatever means, would take the political heat off Mr Berlusconi who, following the defection of Spain, is the coalition’s most important ally in continental Europe.
With expectation of a resolution growing by the hour, Italy’s defence minister, Antonio Martino, went to the headquarters of the military intelligence service, Sismi, to follow developments.
Four Italians were seized last week near Falluja by a previously unknown group calling itself the Green Brigade of Mohammed. On Wednesday, a video was delivered to the Arab-language satellite channel, al-Jazeera, showing one of the men being shot in the head.
Sources in Iraq and Italy have said talks for the release of the hostages have been unusually difficult because they work for a US firm and were carrying weapons when they were seized.
But in an interview with the newspaper Corriere della Sera, Ms Contini said she was “optimistic, very optimistic”. She added: “The hostages will probably not be released straight away. But they will not be killed.”
Ms Contini, a Middle Eastern expert, said she believed the four Italians had been seized by “local gangs” in a country where hostage-taking formed part of the tribal culture. The governor made her comments on her return to Baghdad from Rome, where she spent part of her time with the crisis unit set up to coordinate the government’s response to the hostage-taking.
In an article citing “authoritative and confidential sources”, the daily newspaper QN yesterday reported that a ransom had already been handed over. A foreign ministry official said: “We have no comment to make on this report.”
There was also speculation of a link to the delivery of humanitarian aid to Falluja. It was reported that, on Sunday, the Red Cross’s special commissioner, Maurizio Scelli, had telephoned Mr Berlusconi’s office to ask for his help in persuading Washington to allow a convoy to take in water, food and medicine.
The convoy, two Iraqi Red Crescent lorries and one Italian Red Cross vehicle, reached Falluja yesterday.
According to Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, the dead man and two of the other hostages – Maurizio Agliana, 35, from Prato in Tuscany and Umberto Cupertino, 35, from Bari in Puglia – were employees of a Nevada-based security firm called DTS Llc. The third man, Salvatore Stefio, 34, was said to be president of a company called Presidium.
Their kidnapping has revived controversy in Italy over the country’s role in Iraq. Mr Berlusconi did not commit troops to the invasion but last summer he dispatched a peacekeeping force, which now numbers almost 3,000. There has been recurrent public concern over whether the force forms part of an occupying army or, as the prime minister has insisted, a humanitarian mission.
Despite deep-seated doubts, the main opposition in Italy has held back from demanding a withdrawal. But Romano Prodi, the European commission president and de facto leader-in-exile of the opposition, has expressed sympathy for the tough line taken by Spain’s prime minister, JosÃ© Luis RodrÃguez Zapatero.