Italian lawmakers examine the objectives of the Russian pandemic mission

ROME (AP) – An Italian parliament committee that deals with intelligence called on former Premier Giuseppe Conte on Thursday over growing concerns that a Russian military and medical team sent to help Italy early in the COVID-19 pandemic , was actually on a spy mission.

Conte was serving as Italy’s populist leader when the pandemic began in 2020 and overwhelmed the country’s health system, which was then desperate for masks, respirators and hygiene materials.

The proceedings of the Parliamentary Committee for the Security of the Republic usually take place in closed doors as they involve national security.

It was not immediately known whether Conte or the committee’s lawmakers would brief reporters about the hearings starting Thursday evening.

Conte leads the populist 5-Star Movement, the largest party in parliament.

The Russian mission consisted of about 100 army personnel and medical personnel. It recently came under renewed scrutiny after a Russian Foreign Ministry official publicly threatened Italian Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini if ​​Italy proceeds with tougher sanctions on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian ministry official simultaneously implied that Italy was ungrateful for the pandemic aid.

In March 2020, Russia offered to send about 400 personnel and equipment to Italy. Guerrini objected and was successful in reducing the Russian team to about 100 members. An Italian general also successfully argued against Russia’s proposal to clean up not only hospitals and nursing homes, as previously agreed, but also Italian government offices, the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera has reported.

Recently, a member of a special Italian committee of health and civil protection experts, which advises the government on the pandemic, described the Russians’ attitude towards the aid mission as offensive.

At the time of the Russian mission, concerns arose in Italy that Russian troops were operating about 50 kilometers (35 mi) from a US military base in northern Italy. Italy is a member of NATO.

The Russians pushed for a similar pandemic-support mission to be carried out in southern Italy, where the coronavirus outbreak was relatively mild at the time. Corriere reported Thursday that Guerini, who opposed expanding the aid mission, essentially told the Russians, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

The Russian team left after a few weeks.

According to Italian news reports, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu approached Guerrini to offer him a shipment of masks at the start of the pandemic, and Guerrini said Italy would send a plane to Russia to retrieve them.

Russian President Vladimir Putin then called Conte, who later informed Guerini that Russia intended to send hundreds of military and medical personnel, Italian media have reported.

The leadership of the 5-Star Movement, which is in the pandemic-unity coalition ally of Italy’s current premier, Mario Draghi, officially supports sanctions against Russia. But some 5-star lawmakers have opposed military aid to Ukraine. Many current or former 5-stars are openly supporters of Putin and did not attend Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to the Italian parliament by video hookup earlier this week.

Conte recently expressed reservations about increasing Italian military spending, emphasizing the needs of civilians grappling with rising energy costs and the economic fallout of the pandemic.

In Conte’s first government, a key ally was right-wing leader Matteo Salvini, who openly admired Putin and had close ties with Russia.

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