Freed Italian journalist returns home after shooting

Sgrena's account of deadly incident contradicts Americans'

March 06, 2005|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ROME - An Italian journalist freed from kidnappers in Iraq and then shot by American troops returned home yesterday and raised questions about the official U.S. explanation of the shooting, as emotional outrage swept Italy.

Giuliana Sgrena was wounded and an Italian intelligence agent who helped win her freedom was killed Friday night when U.S. soldiers opened fire on the Italians' car as the reporter traveled to the Baghdad airport in darkness shortly after her release. Sgrena had been held hostage for a month.

The U.S. military said that the shooting was an accident and that the vehicle was speeding toward a U.S. checkpoint outside the airport and failed to heed warnings to stop.

But Sgrena told Italian state television yesterday that her car "was not going especially fast for a situation of that type." She also said her group was fired on by an American patrol and not at a checkpoint.

"We thought the danger was over after my rescue," Sgrena told RAI television by telephone. "And instead, suddenly there was this shooting. We were hit by a spray of fire."

She said she was talking to the intelligence agent, Nicola Calipari, about events in Italy when abruptly he leaned over her as the shooting started - probably, she said, to protect her. Then he slumped, and she realized he was dead.

"The gunfire continued," she said. "The driver couldn't manage to explain that we were Italians. It was a truly terrible thing."

Sgrena, a 56-year-old veteran reporter for the left-wing Il Manifesto newspaper, was hit in the shoulder, and two other agents in the car were also wounded.

"The most difficult moment was when I saw the person who had saved me die in my arms," Sgrena said later, according to her boyfriend, Pier Scolari.

Later, speaking to Italian prosecutors who are determining whether criminal charges can be brought against the Americans, she said that the "regular" speed of her car did not justify the shooting, according to the Italian news agency ANSA.

Calipari was posthumously awarded a medal of valor and will be given a state funeral tomorrow.

It remained unclear whether the Italians notified the Americans at the airport that they were en route. Scolari, who was not in the car but has been with Sgrena since the shooting, said the Italians had informed U.S. officials of their plans and had cleared one of several checkpoints that lead to the airport. But that could not be independently verified. The plane picking up Sgrena was a special Italian military flight whose landing would have been known at some level of the U.S. military.

In Baghdad, Lt. Col. Clifford Kent, a spokesman for the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, said the military was "aggressively investigating" the incident. But he declined to comment on the exact location of the checkpoint in question, whether the military had been informed that Sgrena's car was en route to the airport for the special flight, or if that information had been passed down to the relevant checkpoints.

The road to the airport is considered one of the most dangerous in Iraq. U.S. military patrols that drive it are frequently attacked by insurgents with roadside bombs and mortars. U.S. soldiers in turn, fearing attack, frequently open fire, and have sometimes killed passersby in the process.

Calipari, a 20-year veteran of law enforcement who had negotiated the release of two previous Italian hostages in Iraq, had told friends that the airport area scared him more than any part of Baghdad, said Piero Marrazzo, a lifelong friend who is now a politician.

Sgrena was airlifted home to Rome on a government jet. She could be seen stepping gingerly from the plane, wrapped in a blanket and with several people helping her. She was attached to a medical drip and looked tired, aged and in pain.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi met Sgrena at the Rome airport, and then she was whisked away to a military hospital near the Colosseum in Rome. There she was questioned by state prosecutors investigating whether to open a homicide case in Calipari's death.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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