Red Cross helped Iraqi rebels in 'hostage deal'
By CNN's Peter Wilkinson
ROME, Italy (CNN) -- The Italian Red Cross has said it treated four "presumed Iraqi terrorists" at its Baghdad hospital to secure the release of two kidnapped Italian aid workers, according to a media report.
Maurizio Scelli, the outgoing commissioner of the aid organization, is reported to have said the deal to free the two women -- Simona Pari and Simona Torretta -- was kept secret from U.S. officials.
"The mediators asked us to treat and save the lives of four presumed terrorists sought by the Americans, wounded in combat. We hid them and brought them to the doctors with the Red Cross, who operated on them," Scelli told La Stampa daily in an interview published Thursday.
"We also treated four of their children, sick with leukemia."
Red Cross spokesman Fabrizio Centofanti later confirmed to CNN that the organization had treated the Iraqis.
"The Red Cross is an impartial organization and it does not depend on the Italian government," Centofanti said.
"It did help presumed Iraqi terrorists, but it did so in the spirit of the Red Cross to help out everyone in need."
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's office, which has denied accusations it paid a ransom to win the aid workers' release, said the Red Cross was independent and did not answer to the government.
"As it is known, it (Red Cross) is not under the operative control, even less directives, of the national authorities precisely so that they can be recognized as neutral, which is indispensable for them to carry out their humanitarian mandate towards the international community," it said in a statement.
"Without entering into what has been said by its commissioner (Scelli), who is recognized for his high merits in the work carried out in favor of the injured in Iraq and other parts of the world, we underline how the government authorities never directed or conditioned his actions."
Cooperation between Italy and the United States had always been "reciprocal" in Iraq, it added.
Scelli, who was present at the handover of the two aid workers on September 28, said he helped to secure the women's release.
He told La Stampa the decision to hide details about the operation from U.S. officials was approved by Gianni Letta, Berlusconi's right-hand man.
"Keeping the Americans in the dark about our efforts to free the hostages was a non-negotiable condition to guarantee the safety of the hostages and ourselves," he said, according to Reuters.
Scelli said he held talks with Italian agent Nicola Calipari, who was shot dead in March this year by U.S. troops at a Baghdad checkpoint during a subsequent rescue operation for another Italian hostage.
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