ROME — The Italian government denied a British newspaper’s report on Thursday that Italy’s forces paid off the Taliban in 2008 to maintain calm in an area of Afghanistan under Italian control.
In a statement, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s office called the report, in the Thursday issue of The Times of London, “completely groundless.”
Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa called it “offensive” and “rubbish” and said the ministry was looking into suing the paper.
Citing what it called NATO and Western intelligence sources, the report said that the Italian secret service had made clandestine payments to the Taliban in the Sarobi district east of Kabul, without telling French forces who took over control in mid-2008.
A month later, in the single largest loss to NATO in several years, 10 French soldiers were killed in an ambush, horrifying France and adding to the difficulty of the United States campaign to persuade NATO members to not only sustain but increase their engagement with the war effort.
The report said that in June 2008, before the ambush, the United States ambassador in Rome made a formal diplomatic protest to the Berlusconi government over payments to the Taliban.
A spokeswoman for the embassy said there would be no comment on “internal diplomatic exchanges that may or may not have occurred.”
In its statement, the Berlusconi government dismissed the idea that the ambassador had filed a formal complaint at that time.
The government statement added that it had “never authorized nor allowed any form of monetary payment to members of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, nor does it have knowledge of similar initiatives carried out by the previous government.”
A spokeswoman for NATO in Brussels had no comment.
President Obama, who came to office stressing the importance of success in Afghanistan, is in the midst of a second review of policy and struggling to keep NATO on course, a task made harder by international frustration with the government in Afghanistan and the disputed presidential election there as well as the rising violence.
Italy lost six soldiers last month, and the increasingly embattled Mr. Berlusconi declared that his nation had begun planning to bring some of its soldiers back “as soon as possible.”