Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said an Italian secret service agent who helped secure Ms Sgrena’s release was killed when he threw himself in front of her to protect her from the incoming bullets.

“It is a pity. This was a joyful moment which made all our co-citizens happy, which has been transformed into profound pain by the death of a person who behaved so bravely,” Mr Berlusconi said.

The prime minister, a staunch ally of US President George W Bush, told a press conference in Rome there were “disquieting questions” that needed to be answered about the incident.

The Italian government has called in US Ambassador to Rome, Mel Sembler, to explain the shooting.

“Several shots hit the car. One man was mortally wounded by a bullet. We are petrified and dumbfounded by this fatality,” Mr Berlusconi said.

“The incident, which has unfortunately been confirmed, happened very close to the airport.”

“Ms Sgrena has said she is okay and has been treated. Then she underwent a small surgery to extract shrapnel,” the prime minister said.

The US military confirmed they shot at the convoy moving at high speed at a checkpoint manned by US coalition forces near Baghdad airport, and said the incident was under investigation.

“The details are not clear at this point. Apparently, a second person in the automobile was killed. Ms Sgrena is being treated by coalition medical personnel. The incident is under investigation,” Lieutenant Colonel Mike Caldwell said, reading an official statement.

Earlier Ms Sgrena’s newspaper, the Rome-based communist daily Il Manifesto, said the 56-year-old journalist had been taken to a US-run hospital for treatment for wounds to her shoulder, adding that her life was not in danger.

“There’s little to say. The Americans nearly killer her,” Ms Sgrena’s companion Pier Scolari was quoted as saying by the ANSA news agency.

The newspaper named the dead man as Nicola Calipari, saying he was hit while trying to protect Ms Sgrena.

Il Manifesto’s editor Gabriele Polo paid tribute to the Italian agent, crediting him with Ms Sgrena’s release.

“Nicola Calipari is the person we must thank most for Giuliana’s release. Unfortunately, he was killed by American bullets,” said Mr Polo.

Ms Sgrena, a 56-year-old veteran Middle East correspondent for the leftist daily Il Manifesto, was abducted on February 4 after visiting a Baghdad mosque where refugees have been living since a US-led assault on the city of Fallujah in November.

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