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Italian worker kidnapped in Libya demands answers from his government

After eight months in captivity, Gino Pollicardo wants to know whether reports that Italy tried to negotiate his release are true
Libya has seen a violent struggle among the Islamic State group, various militias and criminal groups in recent months (AFP)

Eight months after Gino Pollicardo was kidnapped in Libya, the 55-year-old and his colleague Filippo Calcagno found themselves wandering the streets of Sabratha last month after breaking through a locked door with the help of a nail.

Starved and beaten in captivity, the two Italian workers searched through the town and found help from residents. It seemed the nightmare that started with their abduction last July was coming to an end.

But when they arrived in Italy, they were told that two other colleagues kidnapped along with them, Fausto Piano and Salvatore Failla, had been killed, and so another kind of nightmare began.

"When I finally landed in Italy, the minister of foreign affairs, Paolo Gentiloni, hugged me and told me: 'Gino, it's all over',” Pollicardo said.

Pollicardo said he felt “a great anger” at the thought of his slain colleagues. “I feel guilty for having survived,” he said.

And he also had a question, one that had lingered for months. Pollicardo said one of the kidnappers told the four workers there was a mysterious Italian negotiator in town, in talks about their ransom. Could the Italian government, he wondered, have ended the ordeal sooner and more safely?

"We had to free ourselves, and it is something I will never forgive the Italian authorities for,” he said.

A spokesman for Gentiloni, the Italian foreign minister, did not respond to a Middle East Eye query about whether a ransom had been paid.

In recent weeks, however, Gentiloni told members of the Italian Senate that the state did not pay a ransom, and also said that there was no evidence the kidnapping involved the Islamic State (IS) militant group.

“The best hypothesis is that of a pro-Islamic criminal gang operating between Mellita, Zuwara and Sabratha,” he said.

But the mayor of Sabratha, Dhawadi Hussein, told Middle East Eye that the interrogation of a man who drove the workers from Tunisia to Libya and others led local police to believe that IS was involved. 

Whatever the case, Pollicardo said the Italian government has many questions to answer.

“If it is true that in November there was a negotiator in Libya, as we were told, if it’s true that there were Italian intelligence men who were dealing with our captors, I demand to know what went wrong,” he said. “I owe it to the memory of my two dead colleagues."

Troubles ahead

Even before the workers arrived in Libya, they knew there were problems.

The plan, Pollicardo said, was that the four technicians, who worked for Bonatti, an Italian general contractor servicing the oil and gas industry, would travel from Tunisia into western Libya, where the Greenstream gas pipeline runs through the city of Mellitha.

For years, Bonatti has worked as a subcontractor on local compounds for Italian energy giant Eni.

The men were supposed to arrive by ship in Libya, but when they landed in Tunisia, Bonatti told them there was a programme change: they would enter Libya by car via a road considered to be dangerous.

"We immediately had the feeling that the driver – who we knew - was hiding something,” Pollicardo said.

As the trip continued, the driver received several calls on two phones before a car cut across the road, blocking their way. “He stopped,” said Pollicardo, “as if he agreed with who was driving that car.”

Two men approached. They threatened the workers with guns, hooded them and forced them into another car.

‘We became brothers’

After they were abducted, they were taken to a house not far away. They were moved only once after that, but not too far away and always in Sabratha, Pollicardo said.

There were two guards in the house, whose faces were always covered.

“These eight months were very difficult. I have no words to describe them,” he said. “They did not let us eat for days, prevented us from using the bathroom. They chained our feet and often threatened us with the barrels of guns to our heads.”

“The only thing that helped us was to be four and share the fear; we become brothers to face this tragedy,” he said.

Pollicardo said he had a feeling that the kidnappers needed to keep the four alive in order to get ransom money, an impression that was confirmed in late November when one of the kidnappers told them that an Italian negotiator, described as an intelligence officerwas in Sabratha to discuss the money needed to free them.

A few weeks before the apparent arrival of the officer, Pollicardo said, the kidnappers forced the four men to make videos to demonstrate they were still alive.

But something went wrong, he said.

Pollicardo said he was told by the kidnappers, “Negotiations with the intelligence man did not go well, so for us began retaliation and revenge. We were held for days without eating and they beat us harder.”

According to a source in one of Libya’s key militias who prefers to remain anonymous, a part of $12m ransom - $4.5m - was to be paid to the driver of the four men. The rest would have gone to a criminal group. The source also told MEE that there were at least 10 Italian intelligence officers in Sabratha around that time.

Meanwhile, at the house, Pollicardo said there was fighting all around. "Every day, every night, we heard shooting,” he said. 

On 19 February, the situation for the four men changed drastically when US warplanes hit an IS training camp near Sabratha. Forty militants were killed and two Serbian diplomats, who had been abducted, also died. 

"We thought that was the end for us, that it was time to die,” Pollicardo said.

After the raid, the house where the men were being held filled with strangers, militants seeking shelter, Pollicardo thought, but also some women and a child.

“A few days after the raid, our kidnappers made us wash, “ he said. “It was the first time we'd had a shower in months. We thought they wanted to free us, but soon realised that they just wanted to move us again.”

‘Libya has become this hell’

Soon after, two of the Italian workers were taken away in a car. Pollicardo and Calcagno were left behind. 

When the car was stopped by a militia, Piano and Failla were killed in a firefight, according to an account from the Sabratha Authority, a local municipality set up to fight IS. It remains unclear who fired the shots.

A Tunisian member of IS later captured by Libyan authorities, Wahida Mukhtar Bin Ali, reportedly told investigators that she witnessed the shootout and thought that the car with the workers contained a ransom that was burned. 

Pollicardo said that when he and Calcagno were left alone in the house, they realised something must have happened and this was when they broke through the locked door to freedom. 

Residents took them to Sabratha’s municipal council headquarters, where they remained for three days.

"For three days, we did not see any Italians. We had freed ourselves alone, after eight months, and not even an Italian to ask us if we were OK,” Pollicardo said.

As they waited to go home, the head of the Sabratha Operations Room, a body set up under the city’s municipality to fight IS, told the two workers that a criminal group had offered to sell them to him for $10m.

“Criminal groups finance themselves in this way now in Libya, with kidnappings and by corrupting local authorities, who often are in collusion with the criminal groups,” he said. “Libya has become this hell.”