(photo credit: AP Photo/APTN [file])
A kidnapped translator for an Italian journalist was beheaded on Sunday in southern Afghanistan, Afghan authorities and a purported spokesman for the Taliban said.
Ajmal Naqshbandi, a freelance journalist and translator, was kidnapped along with Daniele Mastrogiacomo of the Italian daily La Repubblica, and a driver in southern Helmand province on March 5. The driver, Sayed Agha, was beheaded, and Mastrogiacomo was released March 19 in a much criticized swap for five Taliban militants.
The Taliban made a similar demand in return for the release of Naqshbandi.
"We asked for two Taliban commanders to be released in exchange for Ajmal Naqshbandi, but the government did not care for our demands, and today, at 3:05 p.m., we beheaded Ajmal in Garmsir district of Helmand province," said Shahabuddin Atal, who claimed to be a spokesman for regional Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah, known for his cruelty.
"When we demanded the exchange for the Italian journalist, the government released the prisoners, but for the Afghan journalist, the government did not care," Atal said His claim could not be independently verified.
Sayed Ansari, a spokesman for Afghanistan's intelligence service, confirmed the killing and said that the Taliban executed Naqshbandi on behalf of al-Qaida.
"Once again the Taliban showed that they are following the steps of terrorist networks," Ansari said.
Ansari accused Rahmatullah Hanefi, who worked for the Italian-run hospital in Helmand's capital of Lashkar Gah, of involvement in the kidnapping.
The hospital run by an Italian aid group Emergency played a key role in Mastrogiacomo's release.
Ansari alleged that Hanefi helped the Taliban kidnap the three.
Tom Koenigs, the UN's special representative to Afghanistan, condemned the murder and called on authorities to bring those responsible for Naqshbandi's death to justice.
"The perpetrators of this crime have shown absolute indifference to the value of human life by ignoring the calls of family, journalists and Afghans who with one voice called for his safe return," Koenigs said in a statement. "The rights of journalists to go about their work, free from interference or harm, should be recognized and respected by all," he said.
"This barbaric killing reminds us of why the United States and NATO are in Afghanistan in the first place: to help the good people of that country defeat the Taliban extremists and their al-Qaida allies," said Gordon Johndroe, US President George W. Bush's national security spokesman, on Sunday.
Italy's Prime Minister Romano Prodi condemned the killing, which he called "absurd."
"We are brokenhearted, destroyed, catapulted again in a nightmare that never seems to end," Mastrogiacomo said in a statement on La Repubblica's Web site. "Adjmal Naqshbandi was a journalist, like me, like all those who do our job around the world," Mastrogiacomo said.
La Repubblica's editor, Ezio Mauro, said in a statement on the paper's Web site that the newspaper staff was "living through hours of anguish" after news of the purported execution of Naqshbandi.
"The interpreter did nothing wrong, he's a man who, like Daniele and Sayed, went into that area only for reasons of work," the statement said.
The prisoner swap that secured Mastrogiacomo's release has been heavily criticized by Afghan lawmakers and foreigners working in Afghanistan as an incentive for more militant kidnappings.
President Hamid Karzai on Friday defended the exchange, saying the case was threatening Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi's government. However, he ruled out further swaps.
"The Italian prime minister called me several times and asked for cooperation from our side," Karzai said. "The Italian government was facing collapse."
The Taliban have also claimed that they kidnapped two French workers from the aid group Terre d'Enfance and their three Afghan staff.
The five, who were based in southwestern Nimroz province, went missing last week.
Nimroz Gov. Ghulam Dastagir Azad said Sunday he had no news from the kidnappers or the five missing persons.
Last month, local Taliban commander Mullah Tur Jan said the group kidnapped five Afghan medics on March 27, in volatile Kandahar province. The group demanded that Taliban prisoners be exchanged for the release of the medics. There have been no reported developments since then.