Three Italian aid workers seized by Afghan police in Helmand have confessed to their part in a plot to assassinate the provincial governor, Afghan officials claimed today.
The men were among nine people arrested yesterday when Afghan security forces stormed a hospital in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.
The hospital is one of three run by the Italian charity Emergency – the others are in Kabul and the Panjshir Valley, which is home to the one of the key anti-Taleban Northern Alliance groups – and has a reputation for treating Taleban wounded. The policy has made the organisation unpopular with local officials
A statement on the charity's website said that the accusation “sounds simply groundless”.
“We still have not been able to reach them by phone,” the statement said. “The only contact we have been able to make has been through one of the employee’s cell phones answered by someone who identified himself as a British military official. This person notified us that the Italians were well, but unavailable to speak at the time.”
The Italian ambassador has flown to Lashkar Gar in an attempt to see the accused Italians.
Afghan police and intelligence agents stormed the hospital – which specialises in providing accident and emergency treatment to war victims – on Saturday afternoon.
“All nine people detained have confessed,” the governor’s spokesman, Daoud Ahmadi, said. “They were accused of links with al-Qaeda and terrorists. During the raid we found explosives, including hand grenades, suicide vests and some weapons, concealed in medicine boxes.
“These explosives were smuggled into Helmand disguised as medical supplies. They have accepted their crime. They have confessed. They said there was a plan to carry out suicide attacks on crowded bazaars, the governor’s compound, and they wanted to kill the governor.”
Gulab Mangal, the Governor – who enjoys a relatively good relationship with the British headquarters in Lashkar Gah – told reporters he was "the No 1 target” of the plot.
Military officials insisted that Nato forces were not involved in the raid. Britain’s Special Forces and the Secret Intelligence Service based in Helmand are not part of the Nato mission but they work alongside Afghan forces in Helmand.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Interior in Kabul, Zamerai Bashery, said: "Right now we're trying to find out how the equipment got into the hospital, why and who is responsible."
Mr Ahmadi claimed that the detainees had links with the Taleban’s Quetta Shura, the exiled leadership council named after its new base in Baluchistan province, Pakistan. He said they had been paid $500,000 (£325,000) to carry out the attack.
The Italians were named as Matteo Dell'Aira, the Milan-based charity’s medical director, Marco Garatti, a surgeon, and Matteo Pagani, its logistics chief.
Mr Ahmadi said that intelligence agents had been monitoring the hospital for more than a month. He said the detainees had planned to launch a series of suicide attacks in the town’s bazaars and then wait for the Governor to visit the wounded in hospital.
“There are no weapons allowed in the hospital, so it’s the Governor’s habit to come in without his bodyguards,” Mr Ahmadi said. “The plan was to launch a second attack inside the hospital, to kill [Govenor Mangal].”
After the raid a British Army bomb disposal teams was called in “because of the IED vests and the grenades, to make sure the hospital was safe", a British spokesman said. “The hospital is now safe,” he added.
The hospital, close to the Helmand river, is in an upmarket part of Lashkar Gah city, just a few hundred yards from the Governor’s heavily guarded compound.
“Five other employees, including four Italians and one Indian, are currently at the international staff house, and in constant phone contact with our staff in Milan,” the Emergency statement added.
“No Afghan authorities or representatives from the international coalition have contacted us to explain the reasons for this detention.”
Eyewitnesses said that 200 protesters marched through the city today, some chanting, “Death to the Emergency hospital.”
The charity’s Italian staff quit Afghanistan en masse after the head of the Lashkar Gah hospital was arrested in 2007.
Police seized Rahamatullah Hanafi in connection with the death of an Afghan driver who was killed when the Italian journalist he was working for was kidnapped.
Click to view image: 'Italy'
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