Helmand governor seizes Italian medics for alleged assassination plot

Key ally of UK claims staff of hospital run by charity were planning to kill him on orders of Taliban

Jon Boone Kabul Tom Kington Rome
Guardian, Sunday 11 April 2010
The British-backed governor of Helmand today launched an extraordinary attack on three Italian medical workers who were arrested in the province on Saturday after suicide bomb vests were found in their compound.

Gulab Mangal said the three Italians, who have not been named but who worked as a doctor, a nurse and a logistics officer, had been plotting to assassinate him on the orders of Taliban leaders in Pakistan.

Speaking to the Guardian, Mangal, who is regarded by the UK as a critical ally in the province, also claimed that the staff working for the Italian charity Emergency were responsible for unnecessarily amputating the hands of Afghan National Army soldiers "to disable them".

The governor's outburst capped an extraordinary day in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, which began on Saturday afternoon when Afghan security forces raided the Emergency hospital, and discovered two suicide bomb vests, hand grenades and pistols in a storeroom.

Six Afghan members of staff were also arrested during the operation.

Today, the Italian ambassador, Claudio Glaentzer, flew from Kabul to Lashkar Gah, where hundreds of protesters had taken to the streets earlier in the day shouting "Death to Emergency!"

Speaking in Milan, Gino Strada, head of Emergency, said the arrests were an attempt by the Afghan government to silence a "troublesome witness" to the suffering of civilians caught in the fighting in southern Afghanistan. He said the government had effectively "kidnapped" the charity's workers.

"Emergency shows the results of the so-called war on terrorism 40% of the wounded are children under the age of 14. We had asked for a humanitarian corridor to evacuate the wounded, but they put up a security cordon that does not let them reach hospitals," Strada said.

One staff member who recently worked at the Lashkar Gah facility called the situation "unreal".

"It is not possible to think that after 10 years of commitments in Afghanistan we are treated as terrorists," the staff member said.

A spokesman for Task Force Helmand said British troops had not been involved in the raid on the hospital but did respond to a request from Mangal to help guard the compound while Afghan security forces removed explosive materials.

The hospital was established in 2003 and has a good reputation in the province. Emergency treats anyone and does not ask questions about which side patients may have been fighting on.

The organisation gained prominence in 2007 when Strada lobbied for the release of Daniele Mastrogiacomo, an Italian journalist kidnapped by the Taliban and later freed in a prisoner exchange. Today Mangal blamed Emergency for the death of Ajmal Naqshbandi, the Afghan journalist captured with Mastrogiacomo but who was executed by his kidnappers.