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Italian Parliament Votes to Keep Troops in Afghanistan

08 March 2007

Italy's center-left government on Thursday won the first of two parliamentary votes that will allow it to keep troops in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, a large photo of an Italian reporter kidnapped in Afghanistan was hung from Rome's city hall as hundreds gathered to call for his release. Sabina Castelfranco reports for VOA from Rome.

As was expected, the lower house of parliament overwhelmingly approved new funds for Italy's military mission in Afghanistan, with 524 lawmakers voting in favor and only three against. The center-right opposition also gave its backing to the mission.

But the more difficult test will come in the Senate later this month, where Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has only a very narrow majority. There, he faces opposition to the mission from leftist members in his coalition.

Italy has deployed 1,800 soldiers in Afghanistan as part of a NATO force. Divisions over Rome's military presence in Afghanistan was one of the main issues that forced Mr. Prodi to briefly resign last month, after some of his leftist allies voted against him in the upper house.

The presence of Italian troops in Afghanistan and renewal of the mission has become even more of a concern since the kidnapping of an Italian journalist from La Repubblica newspaper.

Daniele Mastrogiacomo has not made contact with his family or newspaper since Sunday. The Taleban says it picked him up in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan Monday and accused him of being a spy.

On Thursday, hundreds of people gathered outside Rome's city hall to call for his immediate release. A large photo of the journalist was unfurled, and hung from city hall, where it will remain until he is freed.

La Repubblica's chief editor, Ezio Mauro, declared that Mastrogiacomo was in Afghanistan, like many other times before, exclusively for his job. The editor says his reporter was completely devoted to his work.

Also present at the gathering to call for the journalist's release was the Afghan community in Rome.

Princess Fatima Zaher, the deputy Afghan ambassador to Rome, said she had come to represent the Afghan government, and to show its solidarity with the Italian people that this dreadful matter be resolved as soon as possible.

Italy has demanded that the Taleban provide proof that the journalist is still alive. The Foreign Ministry in Rome has said this is needed before negotiations can be launched to obtain his release.

A Taleban spokesman has said the journalist had confessed to spying. But La Repubblica newspaper has categorically denied that Mastrogiacomo is a spy, saying that he has been writing for the newspaper since 1980 and arrived in Afghanistan February 28 on a reporting trip.

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