Karzai regrets prisoner exchange with Taliban
Published Friday, March 23, 2007 8:18AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, May 18, 2012 5:55PM EDT
Afghan President Hamid Karzai told CTV News in an exclusive interview that he regrets having had to strike a deal with the Taliban to secure the release of an Italian journalist.
Under the agreement, which has come under fire from the United States and Britain, five Taliban prisoners were exchanged for journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo.
He was released by the Taliban on Monday, two weeks after he was kidnapped.
In an exclusive interview Friday, Karzai told CTV's Paul Workman he felt as if his hands were tied and he had to come through for an ally that needed his help.
"Had I not done that, and those terrorists had killed the Italian, the Italian people would have said the Afghans have no heart for us, they don't care what happens to us. We have been there, but when we ask them to help us they don't do it," Karzai said.
Karzai said he was in a tough position, and the bottom line was that when the Italians called and asked for his help -- which he said they did many times -- he couldn't say no.
"It's a human to human response in times of need. We needed help from the rest of the world and it came to us, and the other day Italy needed help from us and I had to deliver."
Karzai said it is ingrained in the Afghan culture to provide help to those in need, and that's what he did. However, he admits having agonized about the decision, which observers say could set a dangerous precedent and may encourage the Taliban to carry out more kidnappings.
"I am upset about it, I'm very upset about it, I'm especially upset because a 25-year-old Afghan driver was beheaded by the group that was holding the Italian," Karzai said, pointing out that the man had six children, all under the age of seven.
"I did not want the same fate to come to the Italian. We are a society that responds to friends in time of need, and that's righteous, so that's what we did."
Italy's opposition party on Thursday threatened to withdraw its support for Italian peacekeepers in Afghanistan as a result of the deal.
The Italian Senate will vote on extending the mission on March 27, and Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who has only a slim majority, needs the opposition's support for the campaign.
Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, a staunch U.S. ally, was critical of Prodi's handling of the issue.
"By now we are regarded as unreliable by our allies," Berlusconi has said. "(President George W.) Bush trusted me. It's not the same now".
Berlusconi's own government was accused of paying cash to free Italian hostages in Iraq between 2004 and 2005. But Gianfranco Fini, foreign minister under Berlusconi, said no foreign ally had blamed Rome in past hostage crises.
Italy has 1,900 soldiers in Afghanistan, but they are not involved in the major fighting in the southern region.
According to reports, Washington formally complained to Rome about the prisoner swap to free Mastrogiacomo.
Italy sought to play down the diplomatic rift, and Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema phoned his U.S. counterpart Condoleezza Rice on Thursday to smooth over relations.
The U.S. released few details about the conversation, but said Washington had stressed to Italy its long-standing view that it does not support "hostage exchanges or other concessions to terrorists."
"Given the increased threat created for all of us who have people on the ground in places like Afghanistan, we expect that concessions will not be made in the future," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement.
The U.K. also said it was concerned that the deal "sent the wrong message to prospective hostage-takers".
However, Karzai told Workman "they will not be able to take advantage of this unless we show signs of weakness."
With a report from CTV's Paul Workman in Kandahar