ROME -- An Italian journalist who was held hostage for 15 days by the Taliban in lawless southern Afghanistan was ransomed for five Taliban prisoners, the Italian government and Afghan officials confirmed yesterday.
It appears to be the first time prisoners have been openly exchanged for a hostage in the wars that the United States and its allies are fighting there and in Iraq, and the move drew immediate criticism from Washington and London, and from other European capitals.
"We don't negotiate with terrorists, and we don't advise others to do so, either," said the State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack.
A senior Bush administration official said the prisoners exchanged had been held by the Afghan government, not by NATO, which is directing the allied military in Afghanistan. The official said he did not believe that NATO officials in Afghanistan had been formally alerted before the exchange.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with the Italian foreign minister, Massimo D'Alema, in Washington on Monday, the day the hostage, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, 52, of the leftist newspaper La Repubblica, was released. It was not clear whether they discussed an exchange.
Though it may have saved a life, the ransom has set off a worried debate in Italy and in other countries that have soldiers, reporters and aid workers in danger zones.
The exchange sent "the wrong signal to prospective hostage takers," a spokeswoman for the British Foreign Office told Reuters.
On a visit to Kabul yesterday, the Dutch foreign minister, Maxime Verhagen, told reporters: "When we create a situation where you can buy the freedom of Taliban fighters when you catch a journalist, then in the short term there will be no journalists anymore."
The concern was underscored Tuesday just after the release of one of the prisoners, Ustad Yasser, who was identified as a Taliban spokesman. He said he would return immediately to war, and was "grabbing two rifles to begin jihad again to hunt down invaders and fight nonbelievers," according to a statement attributed to him on the Internet.
The government of Romano Prodi, the Italian prime minister, said the central issue surrounding the kidnapping of Mastrogiacomo was not complicated.
"We think that the life of a person is very precious," said Prodi's spokesman, Silvio Sircana, who is also a friend of Mastrogiacomo's. "So if there is a chance to save a life, we must do all we can do. And this was our very simple line, and not anything more."
Mastrogiacomo was abducted as he was driving with an interpreter and a driver to an interview with a Taliban commander near Lashkhar Gah, in southern Afghanistan, he wrote in La Repubblica on Tuesday, the day he returned to Rome.
Dragged from place to place, nearly always in chains, he was forced to watch a Taliban soldier decapitate his driver, then wipe the blade clean on the headless body.
"I imagine myself with my neck sliced, the blood splashed from all the arteries drained into the sand, the body committed to the river's course," he wrote.
On Monday, he continued, a Taliban commander came into the mud hut where he and the interpreter were being held and proclaimed, "You are free, fly away!" The fate of the interpreter is unknown.