Nigeria hostage murder: Britain hits back in diplomatic row with Italy
BRITAIN informed Italy of an attempt to rescue two hostages in Nigeria as the doomed bid was getting under way but did not have the time to forewarn Rome, the Government said.
A diplomatic row has broken out over the deaths of two hostages after the Italian president claimed that the British government had not told Rome of the rescue operation.
Branding the situation "inexplicable", Giorgio Napolitano said that he Italian government was not informed or consulted about the botched mission to rescue Briton Chris McManus and Italian Franco Lamolinara. He called for a political and diplomatic explanation from the UK.
Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, hit back, saying: "It isn't inexplicable. It's completely explicable what happened."
He said that the Italian government was "informed" but didn't specifically "approve" the rescue mission adding that the mission was launched after specific intelligence that the hostages were to be moved and killed.
"We contacted the Italians yesterday as the operation was getting under way, but this was a very fast-moving situation," Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman told reporters in London.
Asked whether the Italians raised any objections to an operation, either during the nine months that the British and Italian men were being held or during Thursday, the spokesman said: "I am not aware of any objections."
Speaking in Copenhagen, William Hague, the foreign secretary, said that there had been "limited time" and too many "constraints" to consult Italy ahead of the operation.
"We were able to inform the Italian government as the operation got under way but not to do more than that," Hague said.
"I think everyone understands the constraints involved, the rapid timing involved in a case like this."
Mr Hague said that he would be able to discuss the issue with Italian counterpart Giulio Terzi di Sant'Agata later Friday on the sidelines of a meeting in Denmark of European Union foreign ministers.
"We worked closely with the Italian government throughout this case from May last year", he said.
"We had to make a decision very quickly, a decision to go ahead with this operation. We had very limited time and that constrained how much we could inform others."
Mr McManus, 28, from Oldham, Greater Manchester, and his Italian colleague were murdered by his captors as commandos from the Special Boat Service (SBS) and the Nigerian army attempted the rescue.
As fall-out from the failed mission continued, the Italian press described the fact that the government was kept out of the loop as “a slap in the face” for Mario Monti, the prime minister. Experts also said it was "a serious diplomatic incident" which would embarrass Rome.
Mr Monti was flying back to Italian capital from Belgrade on Thursday and said he was only informed of the raid by David Cameron after it had got underway.
As the prime minister chaired a security committee meeting at his office in Rome, MPs called for the exact circumstances of the operation to be "clarified with rigour".
Daniela Santanche, a high-profile member of Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-Right People of Freedom party, described the failed operation as “a mess”.
“I would like the prime minister to show his face and explain what happened,” she said.
Massimo D'Alema, the president of the parliamentary security committee and a former prime minister, said he wanted to know why the operation went ahead without the British telling their Italian counterparts about it.
"It needs to be clarified why the British authorities decided to launch a military operation without informing us. We will get to the bottom of this," he said.
Rosa Calipari, another MP, said: "From what we know so far about this tragic operation it would seem that, notwithstanding the presence of an Italian who had been in the hands of kidnappers for a long time, our country was only told after the raid.
"We must ask why the Italian authorities in Nigeria, or other intelligence officers in the African country, were not involved in the decision for the operation to go ahead."
Mr Monti asked Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s president, to provide a “detailed reconstruction” of the rescue attempt as soon as possible.
Raffaello Matarazzo, a research fellow at the Institute of International Affairs in Rome, said Italy’s exclusion from the decision-making was "a serious diplomatic incident" which would embarrass Rome.
The diplomatic slight "comes at a moment when Italy is improving its image on the international stage and the government is clawing back trust among its European partners," he said.
While the argument is "also a bit of a blow to Monti's current attempts to improve relations with Great Britain," Mr Matarazzo said he thought relations between the two countries "will not be seriously damaged."
"These sorts of secret operations are very delicate and can blow up at any time," he said. "Italy knows that."
But comparisons were drawn between Italy’s apparent humiliation over the Nigeria operation and another diplomatic row – a stand-off with India over two Italian marines who have been imprisoned on suspicion of shooting dead two Indian fishermen after mistaking them for Somalia pirates.
The Italian marines were part of a security detail protecting an Italian merchant vessel sailing in the Indian Ocean. They opened fire on Feb 15 when they believed they were under attack from pirates in international waters about 20 miles from the Indian coast.
The Italian press has criticised the Monti government for being too timid in its handling of the dispute.