Freed Italian journalist wounded by coalition fire

New York, March 4, 2005—Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena, held hostage in Iraq for a month, was wounded shortly after her release today and an Italian security agent was killed when U.S.-led coalition forces fired on their car near a military checkpoint in Baghdad.

Sgrena, a reporter for the Rome-based daily Il Manifesto who was held captive since February 4, was taken to an American military hospital, where she had a minor operation on her left shoulder to remove a piece of shrapnel, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told reporters.

The shooting claimed the life of an Italian secret service agent who was accompanying her, according to international news reports. The editor of Il Manifesto, Gabriele Polo, said the agent was killed when he threw himself over the freed hostage to protect her from fire, according to the Italian news agency Apcom.

The U.S. military confirmed the shooting in a statement to The Associated Press. “At approximately 8:55 p.m. tonight, coalition forces assigned to the multinational force in Iraq fired on a vehicle that was approaching a coalition checkpoint in Baghdad at a high rate of speed,” the U.S. announcement said. The statement, given to the AP in Baghdad by telephone, said that details of the incident were “unclear.”

Bryan Whitman, a spokesman at the Pentagon, said Sgrena was being brought into U.S. military control at Camp Victory, the military base near Baghdad International Airport, when the shooting took place, the AP said. U.S. soldiers at the checkpoint tried to warn the vehicle, then shot the car’s engine block when the driver did not stop, the U.S.Army’s Third Infantry Division in Baghdad said in a statement to Reuters.

Berlusconi asked the U.S. ambassador for an explanation. “Given that the fire came from an American source I called in the American ambassador,” Berlusconi told reporters. “I believe we must have an explanation for such a serious incident, for which someone must take the responsibility.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists also urged the military to vigorously investigate all questions regarding the shooting. “We are relieved that Giuliana Sgrena has been freed, but are deeply concerned that the car taking her to safety came under military fire,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “Military officials must conduct a thorough investigation of the circumstances that caused this shooting, which turned a very positive development into a tragedy.”

Sgrena was abducted near Baghdad University, where she had been conducting interviews. Two weeks later, kidnappers released a video showing her pleading for her life and calling on U.S. and coalition troops to leave Iraq. Uncorroborated claims of responsibility for the journalist’s abduction had appeared on Islamist Web sites, but the video showed the words “Mujahedeen Without Borders” inscribed in digital red Arabic script in the backdrop.

The Italian government said it would not accede to demands to pull out its troops.
Armed groups in Iraq have abducted at least 27 journalists since April 2004, when insurgents began targeting foreigners for kidnapping. Twenty-four have been released thus far; Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni and Iraqi television anchor Raeda Wazzan were killed.

Veteran French foreign correspondent Florence Aubenas of the daily newspaper Liberation remains captive. She appeared in a video that aired three days ago pleading for her life.