ROME – Italy demanded answers Saturday as former hostage Giuliana Sgrena was taken off a flight from Iraq hooked to an intravenous drip for a shoulder wound inflicted when American troops fired on a car taking her to the Baghdad airport. The Italian agent who negotiated her freedom was hit and died in her arms.
The shooting at a U.S. checkpoint in Baghdad stoked anti-war sentiment in Italy, where the public was widely opposed to the government’s decision to send 3,000 troops to help U.S.-led efforts to secure the country from a violent insurgency. President Bush promised a full investigation.
About 100 demonstrators outside the U.S. Embassy in Rome blocked traffic and one banner read: “USA, war criminals.” A few dozen communist demonstrators at the U.S. Consulate in Milan handed out leaflets reading, “Shame on you, Bush.”
Sgrena, a 56-year-old journalist for the communist newspaper Il Manifesto, was flown from Baghdad on an Italian government plane. She was taken by ambulance to a military hospital in Rome, a day after undergoing surgery at a U.S. military hospital in Iraq to remove shrapnel from her shoulder. Doctors said late Saturday that another operation was not needed.
From her hospital bed, Sgrena recounted the ordeal that unfolded shortly after she was released by insurgents in Iraq after a month in captivity. She gave no details about the circumstances surrounding her release.
“We thought the danger was over after my rescue,” she told RAI News 24 television by telephone. “And instead suddenly there was this shooting, we were hit by a spray of fire. I was talking to Nicola … when he leaned over me, probably to defend me, and then he slumped over. That was a truly terrible thing.”
Pier Scolari, the journalist’s boyfriend, said she told him: “The most difficult moment was when I saw the person who had saved me die in my arms,” the ANSA news agency reported.
The slain agent, Nicola Calipari, 50, was the brother of a priest who serves on a Vatican advisory body, Vatican Radio reported Saturday, and Pope John Paul II sent a message of condolence to the family. The Italian government awarded Calipari a medal of valor.
Italy said two other agents were wounded. One was seriously injured and remained hospitalized in Iraq, while the other returned on Sgrena’s flight, Italian state television said.
Calipari’s body was flown back to Italy late Saturday. His coffin was carried out of the military plane wrapped in an Italian flag and blessed by his brother. Calipari’s wife, mother and two children also were present.
The U.S. military, which has promised an “aggressive” investigation, said the car in which Sgrena was riding after her release was speeding as it approached a coalition checkpoint in western Baghdad on its way to the airport. American authorities said soldiers shot into the engine block only after trying to warn the driver to stop by “hand and arm signals, flashing white lights and firing warning shots.”
Sgrena, who was interviewed by prosecutors at the Rome hospital, denied the car was speeding, news reports said.
The shooting dealt a new blow to center-right Premier Silvio Berlusconi, a strong Bush ally. Tens of thousands of Italians regularly demonstrated against the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and the Italian left – including Sgrena’s newspaper – vigorously opposed the conflict.