Rome: President Giorgio Napolitano led a chorus of condemnation on Friday of Britain`s failure to inform the Italian government before launching a botched rescue mission with Nigerian forces that led to the deaths of British and Italian hostages held by a militant Islamist group.
Briton Chris McManus and Italian Franco Lamolinara, who were kidnapped in May while working for a construction company in northwest Nigeria, were killed by their captors during the raid, British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Thursday.
In the strongest Italian condemnation, Napolitano told reporters: "The behaviour of the British government in not informing Italy is inexplicable."
"A political and diplomatic clarification is necessary."
Prime Minister Mario Monti said Italy had been informed only after the raid began against a compound in the town of Sokoto. The British government confirmed this on Friday.
"Italy wasn`t informed or asked its opinion about a blitz that put at mortal risk an Italian citizen," Fabrizio Cicchitto, a senior official in former leader Silvio Berlusconi`s People of Liberty party, said in a television interview.
"Between allies, this sort of mission is usually talked about beforehand. The British government bypassed and completely ignored us," he said.
While Italian media criticised Britain for acting unilaterally, commentators also said the event underscored Italy`s diminishing international clout.
They linked the incident to an ongoing struggle by Italy to free two marines on anti-piracy duty who are being held in India for shooting dead two fishermen in the Indian Ocean.
"The United Kingdom still acts, maybe unconsciously, with the nostalgia of imperial glory," said Antonio Puri Purini in Corriere della Sera, the country`s biggest daily, drawing another parallel with the capsizing of the giant cruise liner Costa Concordia in which at least 25 people died in January.
"First the tragic farce of Captain (Francesco) Schettino and then the arrest of the marines in Kochi," said Puri Purini. "The Italian public has a right to feel humiliated."
Monti convenes security committee
Monti called a meeting on Friday with his senior security ministers and a representative of the secret services. A parliamentary committee has also said it will open a probe.
The British ambassador in Rome visited the Italian Foreign Ministry "on his own accord" on Thursday night, a British Foreign Office spokeswoman said without giving further details.
In Britain there were attempts to play down the spat.
"I don`t think failure to make a phone call five minutes earlier will damage relations between Britain and Italy," Richard Ottaway, chairman of Britain`s Foreign Affairs select committee, told Reuters.
"I understand the frustrations of the Italians, but I don`t think it is unreasonable because they are fast moving, sensitive operations and it`s not always possible to keep politicians briefed in advance of what goes on."
A Downing Street spokesman said Britain had been in close contact with the Italian government since the kidnapping last May. Rome was contacted as the operation got underway, he said.
"The fact of the matter is things were moving quite quickly on the ground and we had to respond to that and our top priority was to maximize the chances of getting the hostages out.
Asked if Italian authorities had given prior approval to a rescue operation, he said: "When the prime minister (Cameron) phoned Mario Monti, ), the operation had happened. We knew that the hostages were dead."
Monti spoke to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, whose special forces made up most of the attack force, on Thursday to demand a "complete reconstruction" of the operation.
In Nigeria, the compound where the hostages were held was pock-marked with bullet holes after the raid.
"The security agencies tried to break into the house but there was resistance. The people inside the house were shooting at them and they returned fire. They exchanged fire for some time," said Mahmoud Abubakar, who lives on the same street.
"After all the gunfire, I saw soldiers bring out five dead bodies from the house. Two were white, three were black," said Murtala Naboro Tsafe, whose house is opposite the compound.
"At about 6.30pm local time, before dark, soldiers marched three people out of the house who were still alive".
The hostage takers were a faction of militant Islamist sect Boko Haram that has links with al Qaeda`s north African wing, a senior official at Nigeria`s State Security Service said.
Boko Haram is waging an insurgency against Nigeria`s southern dominated government and has been blamed for shootings and bombings that have killed hundreds in the last two years.
The two diplomatic incidents in Nigeria and India are an unexpected challenge for Monti, who has focused primarily on economic reforms.
He took power at the head of an unelected government of technocrats in November, replacing the scandal-plagued Berlusconi as Italy teetered on the brink of ruinous default.
Despite being a NATO member and active in international peacekeeping - with troops in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Lebanon and elsewhere - Italy`s international influence seems to have flagged in recent years.
Berlusconi`s flamboyant personality, sexual and corruption scandals and diplomatic gaffes damaged Italy`s reputation abroad, especially after his foot-dragging when Britain and France pushed for the NATO bombing campaign that helped oust Libya`s Muammar Gaddafi.