Three Italian NGO volunteers ‘probably held illegally’ in Afghanistan

Italian medical charity Emergency said it will demand the “immediate” release of three of its workers arrested on Saturday 10 april  in connection with an alleged plot to kill a southern Afghanistan provincial governor.

“We’re going to ask for the immediate release of our guys,” said the communications chief of the Italian NGO, Maso Notarianni.

Notarianni said Afghan law requires suspects to be released within 24 hours unless charges are pressed.

“We think they’re probably being held illegally,” he said. “Rather than (their) detention, we should be talking about abduction”.

He added that the Italian foreign ministry was “moving” on the case.

So far, the three detainees- surgeon Marco Garatti, 40, nurse Matteo Dell’Aira, 30, and logistical technician Matteo Pagani Bonaiuti, 18 – have only been placed under investigation after arms and explosives were found in their field hospital in the capital of Helmand province, Lashkar Gah.

Afghan officials say the find was linked to a plot to kill the governor of the war-torn province, Goulab Mangal.

Emergency says the three were “framed” to get rid of the relief organisation because it is an unwanted witness to the scale of civilian casualties.

The Emergency spokesman said the idea of shutting down its operations in Afghanistan in protest at the arrests was “for now premature”.

“We aren’t thinking about it,” Notarianni said.

Meanwhile Rome prosecutors said they were following the case.

A probe has not yet started because the alleged involvement of the Emergency men “is not very clear”, judicial sources said. But they said a probe will be formally opened “in the next few days” whether the charges prove to have some basis or not.

The parliamentary secret service commission, COPASIR, will hear Italian intelligence agency AISE on the case Wednesday.

According to Italian media, Italian intelligence suspects there is something “strange” about the case. Earlier, Helmand province spokesman Daud Ahmadi told ANSA the three had not confessed to being linked to al-Qaeda, as erroneously reported by The Sunday Times.

Ahmadi said the British newspaper had already “apologised” to him.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini called the Sunday Times’ report a serious case of “misinformation”. But The Times correspondent in Afghanistan, Jerome Starkey, denied the spokesman’s claim, saying Ahmadi had spoken of a confession on two occasions.

When he announced the arrest of nine people including the three Italians on Saturday, Ahmadi said the arms were intended for use against Helmand Governor Mangal.

Helmand has been the stage of some of the fiercest fighting in the Afghan war since NATO launched a huge offensive against the Taliban in February. Italian Ambassador Claudio Glaentzer has met with Governor Mangal and reaffirmed Italy’s confidence in the Afghan justice system, the spokesman said.

Glaentzer asked the Afghan investigators to bring their probe to a speedy conclusion “so that we know the results as soon as possible,” Ahmadi said.

Any decision on keeping the three in Helmand or sending them to Kabul would be up to the central government, the spokesman said.

The Afghan interior ministry said Monday the probe into the weapons was ongoing and speculation as to how it might turn out was premature. The head of Emergency, Gino Strada, has called the allegations against the three “a set-up” and suggested NATO wants Emergency out of the way because it is releasing undesired details about the civilian cost of the war.

NATO has denied taking part in the raid on the hospital but Strada says soldiers wearing NATO gear were caught on video there. Frattini has said if the allegations against the three turn out to be true it would be a “disgrace for Italy”.

On Monday NATO troops fired on a bus near Kandahar killing at least four civilians and wounding another 18. Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack and NATO admitted it had made a mistake, voicing “deep regret”.

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