In Afghanistan, new demands for abducted journalist after driver was killed

NEW YORK, March 16, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by a report that kidnappers of La Repubblica reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo have killed his Afghan driver and made additional demands for his release.

According to the Pajhwok Afghan News agency, the country’s largest independent wire service, Mastrogiacomo’s driver Sayed Agha was killed for “spying for foreign troops.” Pajhwok attributed the information to Taliban spokesman Shahbuddin Atal, who added that negotiations with Italian officials were continuing for the release of the journalist and his local guide, referred to only as Ajmal.

The Taliban’s latest demand, according to Pajhwok, is for the release of six men—Atal did not specify their names—in return for Mastrogiacomo and Ajmal. The Taliban, speaking to journalists through several spokesmen, have offered different versions of Mastrogiacomo’s captivity and prospects for release. They have said they are investigating whether the reporter was a spy; they have called for the withdrawal of Italian troops operating with NATO forces in the country; and they offered to exchange Mastrogiacomo for two Taliban members detained by Afghan authorities.

“We call on those holding our colleague Daniele Mastrogiacomo and his assistant Ajmal to release them immediately. We express our condolences to the family of Sayed Agha,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Journalists cannot be used as pawns to be traded for political goals. Their role must be respected by all sides in the conflict.”

Yesterday, the Taliban released audio and video recordings of Mastrogiacomo’s appeals for the Italian government to negotiate his release. Pajhwok reported that Mastrogiacomo pleaded in English, “Please do something as they have only two days.” The agency identified Taliban leader Mulla Dadullah who said the group has set a two-day deadline to start negotiations with the Italian government.Click here for Pajhwok’s report of the recording.

At the same time yesterday, Italian aid group Emergency received a video that showed Mastrogiacomo asking, “…the Italian government and Mr. President Romano Prodi . . . to do everything in their power, to act with all their means in order to obtain our freedom as soon as possible.” La Repubblica translated Mastrogiacomo’s full statement in English;Google Video’s copy of the statement is here.

Mastrogiacomo, a journalist with 27 years of experience, was on assignment for the La Repubblica, when he and the two Afghans were seized in the southern province of Helmand amidst the heaviest round of fighting between U.S., NATO, and Taliban forces since the U.S.-led invasion of 2001. Mastrogiacomo last contacted his editors on March 4.