ROME, March 5 -- An Italian journalist freed from captivity in Iraq said Saturday that a "rain of fire" from a U.S. roadside patrol hit her vehicle as it slowly approached the airport in Baghdad, injuring her and killing an Italian intelligence agent also inside. Her version of events ran counter to the one U.S. officials provided a day earlier.
Giuliana Sgrena, wearing a plaid shawl draped around her shoulders, was helped down the steps of an airplane at Rome's Ciampino airport after arriving from Baghdad Saturday at noon. She later described the shooting and called the U.S. gunfire on the vehicle unjustified.
Demonstrators carry placards with anti-American messages during a protest in front of the U.S. Embassy in Rome.
(Dario Pignatelli -- AP)
"We weren't going very fast, given the circumstances. It was not a checkpoint, but a patrol that started firing right after lighting up a spotlight. The firing was not justified by the movement of our automobile," Sgrena, a reporter for the Communist newspaper Il Manifesto, told Italian investigators, according to an account related by an official who interviewed her at a military hospital.
A statement released Friday by the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division in Baghdad said troops fired because the car was "traveling at high speeds" and "refused to stop at a checkpoint."
The dead military intelligence agent, Nicola Calipari, had helped secure Sgrena's release and was to accompany her on her trip back to Italy.
"We thought that the danger was finished after my handover. Instead, suddenly, this shooting. A rain of fire came," Sgrena told a television station by telephone. "Nicola folded himself on me probably to defend me and then he collapsed. I saw that he was dead. The shooting continued and the driver did not even have the opportunity to explain that we were Italian."
Sgrena was hit in the shoulder by shrapnel, and two other passengers, also security operatives, were wounded, Italian officials said.
In videotaped remarks from the garden of his official residence, the U.S. ambassador to Italy, Mel Sembler, said that Calipari had been a "valuable" U.S. ally. President Bush expressed his condolences in a telephone call to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has supported U.S. policy in Iraq and contributes about 2,700 troops to the U.S.-led force there.
U.S. officials said the Italians failed to inform military or diplomatic officials that Sgrena was on her way to the airport. Nighttime is particularly dangerous on the airport highway, which has been the scene of numerous car bombings and ambushes of U.S. troops, foreign contractors and other travelers. Berlusconi called in Sembler and demanded that the United States "take responsibility" and acknowledge a "tragic error." Italian prosecutors are preparing to officially ask the United States for information about the shooting.
Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini called the incident "a joke of destiny." A withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq or a souring of relations with the United States "would be the most deceitful attack on the memory of this hero," Fini said, referring to the slain intelligence agent.
Opposition leaders raised questions about the incident. "Was there coordination between our intelligence service and the others in Iraq?" asked Piero Fassino, who heads the Democratic Left, the largest opposition faction. "Was the unified command in Iraq informed that a car was traveling to the airport with the just-liberated kidnapped person? What information was exchanged between our agencies and American forces?"
"Don't believe a word of the U.S. version," said Oliviero Diliberto, secretary of the Italian Communist Party. "There's an attempt to mask what actually happened. The Americans deliberately fired on the Italians."
Doctors described Sgrena's condition as good and stable. Berlusconi, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, the country's ceremonial president, and Walter Veltroni, mayor of Rome, attended a low-key welcoming ceremony for her. Pier Scolari, Sgrena's live-in companion, accompanied her from Baghdad after flying to Iraq overnight.
Sgrena, who had been taken hostage Feb. 4, gave few details about her captivity. She said her captors, who included a woman, did not mistreat her. She also said her pleas on a videotape released after she was seized were fed to her by her abductors. On the tape, she begs for her life and urges "pressure on the Italian government to withdraw its troops" from Iraq.