Kabul, Afghanistan Italy's deputy foreign affairs minister confirmed Wednesday that the Afghan government released five Taliban prisoners to win the freedom of a reporter who had been kidnapped in lawless Helmand province.
Daniele Mastrogiacomo, who writes for Italy's La Repubblica newspaper, was freed Monday after two weeks in captivity. He had been seized in southern Helmand province with his Afghan driver, who was beheaded, and his translator, whose whereabouts are unknown.
Though the Afghan government called the swap "an exceptional case," the deal was sharply criticized.
"When we create situations where you can buy the freedom of Taliban fighters when you catch a journalist, in the short term there will be no journalists anymore," the Dutch foreign minister, Maxime Verhagen, said during a visit to Kabul on Wednesday.
In Washington, a senior State Department official said U.S. diplomats told their Italian counterparts in Rome and Washington that the trade raised serious safety concerns and increased the risk of kidnappings in Afghanistan. The official also denied Italian claims that the U.S. had been consulted about the conditions of the journalist's release.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to address the media.
When asked whether it's the first time hostages have been traded for prisoners in Iraq or Afghanistan, State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper said: "I don't have any idea. You're talking about actions by multiple states."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai's spokesman has said the exchange came about after Karzai told authorities to find a solution to the kidnapping, citing Afghanistan's good relations with Italy.
"If things are done to save a human life ... this is a positive thing," Mastrogiacomo said Wednesday when asked about the controversy surrounding his release.
"I believe that what has been done doesn't violate the sovereignty of a state or the autonomy of its foreign policy decisions," he said, referring to both Italy and Afghanistan.
Ugo Intini, the Italian deputy foreign affairs minister, said in Rome the five militants were handed over to Emergency, an Italian aid group that had served as a mediator in the negotiations to win Mastrogiacomo's release.