Italy denies Taliban bribe report

ROME: The Italian government on Thursday strongly denied a British press report that it had paid the Taliban not to carry out attacks in an Afghanistan district where it had troops.

The Times of London newspaper said 10 French soldiers were killed in the Sarobi district because they failed to realise the risks after the Taliban had been paid off.

The Times, quoting western military officials, said Italian secret servicepaid tens of thousands of dollars to Taliban commanders and local warlords to keep the Sarobi area near Kabul quiet in the months before French forces moved in.

In a statement, the office of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said the report had made "totally baseless accusations".

"The Berlusconi government has never authorised any kind of money payment to members of the Taliban insurrection in Afghanistan, and has no knowledge of initiatives of this type by the previous government," said the statement.

"It should be highlighted that in the first half of 2008, Italian contingents in Afghanistan came under attack numerous times, including one in the Sarobi district, on February 13, 2008, which cost the life of Lieutenant Francesco Pezzulo."

The statement said General David McKiernan, the US commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan at the time, had praised the work of the Italians "in particular in Sarobi district".

"There were very numerous expressions of gratitude and thanks to the Italian intelligence services, who provided extremely pertinent information to the ISAF forces."

The government also denied that the US ambassador in Rome protested to the Italian authorities in June 2008 over alleged payments by Italy in Herat province.

French forces had been in charge of Sarobi for just a month when the 10 soldiers were killed in an ambush in August 2008, in one of the biggest single losses of life for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

The Times said Western military officials knew of the payments, but they had been hidden from the incoming French forces at the time.

The report said that because the French knew nothing of the bribes they made a "catastrophically incorrect threat assessment" of the area.

It explains why the French troops were relatively lightly armed and insufficiently backed up by air cover when they were ambushed by 170 heavily armed insurgents, it added.

The Taliban and the insurgent Hezb-i-Islami faction claimed responsibility for the attack.

A senior NATO officer in Kabul told the newspaper: "It might well make sense to buy off local groups and use non-violence to keep violence down. But it is madness to do so and not inform your allies."

In October 2007, two Italian agents were kidnapped in western Afghanistan. One was killed during a rescue byBritish special forces. Italian media later alleged they had been seized while making payments to the Taliban.