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Italian Hostage Released In Prisoner Swap

The Afghan government agreed to free five Taliban militants in exchange for the release of a kidnapped Italian journalist, an Italian government official said Wednesday.

Daniele Mastrogiacomo, a veteran reporter for La Repubblica, was released Monday after two weeks in the hands of his abductors. He arrived at Rome's Ciampino airport Tuesday evening.

"We confirm that the Afghan government freed five Taliban who were detained in Kabul prisons," said Ugo Intini, the deputy foreign affairs minister.

Intini, briefing the Senate on the kidnapping, said the five militants were handed over to Emergency, an Italian aid group that has served as a mediator in the negotiations to win the release of Mastrogiacomo.

The New York Times reported the Italian deal was the first time prisoners had been swapped openly by a Western government for kidnap victims during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Reaction from the Bush administration came from State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, who said: "We don't negotiate with terrorists, and we don't advise others to do so either," according to the Times report.

On Tuesday, the Afghan government said that it had agreed to some Taliban demands. But Mohammad Karim Rahimi, the spokesman of President Hamid Karzai, refused to say whether any prisoners had been exchanged for Mastrogiacomo, although he said that one prisoner the Taliban wanted freed refused to take part in the deal.

Mastrogiacomo's Afghan driver, who also was seized, was beheaded, and the fate of his translator is not known.

Fighting between Afghan forces and Taliban militants in a volatile southern province on Thursday left at least 21 militants and three Afghan police dead, officials said.

Meanwhile, the Afghan army and Afghan police carried out a joint operation in the Gereshk district of Helmand province Thursday morning, killing 15 fighters in one area and six in another, said Sher Mohammad Karimi, the Defense Ministry's chief of operations. He said no NATO or U.S. forces were involved.

Local officials gave a higher death toll, saying as many as 43 combatants died.

The U.N.'s top envoy to Afghanistan called on the international community Wednesday to do more to counter a resurgence of the Taliban.

Tom Koenigs told the Security Council it needs to help develop Afghanistan, improve security there, and eradicate the poppy trade. Experts warn that Afghanistan's poppy crop will top last year's record-setting levels, and the profits will be used to fuel terrorism and increase the Taliban threat.

Koenigs said progress had been made in northern Afghanistan, where farmers have replaced their poppy fields with alternative crops.

The Bush administration plans to ask Congress for more than ten billion dollars to train Afghan security forces and reconstruction. But he said European allies like Germany, France and Italy need to do more than station their NATO troops in less volatile areas.

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