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Silvia Romano denies being forced to convert to Islam by Al-Shabaab after alleged $3M ransom deal

By Abuga Makori in Nairobi , Garowe Online

MOGADISHU, Somalia - The decision to convert to Islam was not out of coercion from Al-Shabaab militants, former Italian captive Silvia Romano said, arguing that "it was my independent decision after getting accustomed to them".

Ms. Romano, 25, was released by the Al-Qaeda linked group on Saturday around 30 kilometers West of Mogadishu, in a little town called Afgoye. Both the Turkish and Italian intelligence networks contributed significantly to her release, 18 months after the abduction, authorities said.

Reports filed by Kenyan police indicate that Ms. Romano, who was attached to Africa Milele NGO, was kidnapped by armed gunmen in the south coast, Kilifi, in November 2018. It's not clear how the abductors crossed over to Somalia.

But moments after stepping into Italy on Sunday, Romano has been confronting criticism about her decision to convert to Islam, which is not popular in Italy.

In fact, the majority of Italians subscribe to the Roman Catholic Church, whose headquarters are in the neighboring Vatican, just within Rome, the Italian capital.

Upon disembarking from the plane, Ms. Roman was dressed in a navy blue dress with a complete replica of hijab, usually worn by Muslim women. She also appeared pregnant based on the footage released by the intelligence services.

But in a rejoinder, Silvia insisted that the conversion to Islam was "spontaneous" and happened in the middle of her long periods in the hands of the terrorists. During the process, she added, she was able to learn Arabic and reading of the Qur'an.

"It was spontaneous and not forced. In these months I was given a Koran and thanks to my captors I also learned some Arabic,” she told ANSA, the Italian news agency. “They explained their reasons and culture to me. My conversion process has been slow in recent months. There was no marriage or relationship, only respect."

Intelligence reports in Kenya indicate that the aid worker was abducted by local bandits, who later "traded" her to Al-Shabaab within the dense forest of Boni in the risk-prone Lamu County. The foreign is earmarked as one of the terror hotspots in Kenya.

When she was handed over to intelligence operatives, sources said, Silvia was wearing traditional "Somali women clothes". She was received by Italian officials in Mogadishu, before jetting to Rome on Sunday.

But the details of her terms of release have been published by Giornale de Puglia, a leading Italian newspaper, which alleges that authorities in Rome wired $3 million to secure her release from Al-Shabaab.

The figure, Giornale de Puglia added, was channeled to the Al-Shabaab agents after months of negotiations, which are said to have kicked off in December 2019, when the deadly Turkish intelligence MIT, was invited to participate in the operation.

Director of right-wing newspaper Libero, Vittorio Feltri, in a vitriol tweet, also insisted that Silvia's freedom was secured after the Italian government paying the Al-Shabaab, equating the move to financing of terrorism.

Turkish security sources said Ms. Romano was rescued after a joint effort by Turkey's MIT intelligence agency and Italian and Somalian government authorities.

"The MIT began work in the region on determining Silvia Romano's condition in December 2019 upon a request from Italian authorities," the sources claimed, without releasing details about the entire process.

"Paying the ransom for Silvia means financing Islamic terrorists. Who are friends of the girl who became Muslim? The nice operation," Feltri added while condemning the entire operation.

But even in the middle of the contestation, Al-Shabaab spokesperson Ali Dheere, has confirmed that the ransom was paid, in an affirmation to the Italian press which was first to report the matter.

According to Ali Dheere, such money is used for the purchase of weapons by the Al-Qaida linked group, which has caused havoc within East Africa for the last decade. His affirmation also comes amid claims that Somalia spy agency, NISA, funds the operations of the terrorist group.

To appreciate the role played by Turkey, Italy's deputy foreign minister acknowledged Turkish cooperation during the rescue operation, which was also closely monitored by Somalia's spy agency NISA.

“There had been cooperation with the Turkish intelligence service to locate her and take action at the right time,” Marina Sereni told LA7 TV channel.

At the Ciampino airport in Rome, Silvia was ushered in by the country's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, who coordinated the entire search and rescue mission exercise miles away from Rome.

"We are so glad to welcome Silvia back in such a delicate moment for the country. The state is always there, and will always be there," Giuseppe Conte said, noting the resilience of the aid worker throughout her "horrifying" experience.

He thanked the intelligence services, the judiciary and the defense and foreign ministries, all involved in the release of the aid worker. But the government did not disclose ransom given to Al-Shabaab, which uses such illegal actions for financial gains.


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