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10:30pm UK, Friday March 09, 2012
Italy’s president has criticised Britain’s “inexplicable behaviour” after the UK launched an attempt to free two hostages in Nigeria without telling Rome beforehand.
Giorgio Napolitano demanded a political and diplomatic explanation following the failed Special Forces rescue mission in which British engineer Christopher McManus and his Italian colleague Franco Lamolinara were killed.
Prime Minister David Cameron gave the order to go ahead with the attempt to free the two men ater it apparently emerged their “lives were under imminent and growing danger”.
But Mr Napolitano told reporters: “The behaviour of the British Government in not informing Italy is inexplicable. A political and diplomatic clarification is necessary.”
Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti was also said to be “furious” at having been kept out of the loop.
As the diploamtic row simmered during Friday, Britain’s Ambassador in Rome, Christopher Prentice, visited Mr Monti’s office.
Sky sources said Mr Prentice had not been “summoned”, but went of his own free will to the Italians.
Later, when Foreign Secretary William Hague met his Italian counterpart Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata at a gathering in Copenhagen, the two men sought to draw a line under the dispute.
According to a statement, Mr Hague “made clear that there had been a limited opportunity to secure the release of the two hostages whose lives were in imminent and growing danger”.
Chris McManus and Franco Lamolinara were taken hostage by terrorists in northern Nigeria in May 2011
“Under these circumstances it was only possible to inform Italy once the operation was already getting under way,” the statement said.
The statement continued: “Mr Terzi expressed deep sorrow and disappointment over the tragic outcome of the operation and both ministers agreed on the urgency of sharing full information to facilitate the reconstruction and understanding of these events.”
Number 10 said that contacts had taken place between the governments as the
operation got under way, and that Mr Cameron later spoke to Mr Monti by phone after it was learned that the hostages were dead.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “Our priority was to respond to the situation on the ground and to do everything we could to try and secure the safe release of the hostages.”
Mr Monti has pointed to the lack of prior warning he received, saying the UK and Nigerian authorities had determined the operation was the “last window of opportunity to save the hostages’ lives”.
Mr McManus was captured by gunmen during a raid on his apartment
He was informed as he flew back to Rome from a visit to Belgrade and once he landed at the city’s Ciampino airport he did not leave his official plane for two hours as it became an unofficial ‘war office’.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond defended the way the situation had been handled, saying the Italian authorities were “notified about what was going on”.
“They did know that the operation was under way and judgments had to be made,” he told Sky News.
Mr McManus and Mr Lamolinara – contract workers for the Italian construction firm B Stabilini – were seized by gunmen who stormed their apartment in May last year.
In August last year, a video was released showing the pair blindfolded and kneeling in front of their captors who were armed with rifles and a machete.
Mr McManus’ family have said they were “devastated” by his death but understood the decision to launch the rescue bid.
“We knew Chris was in an extremely dangerous situation. However, we knew that everything that could be done was being done,” they said in a statement.