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Europe

Italy in Shock over Kidnapping of Aid Workers

After France, Italy is now faced with the shock of kidnappings in Iraq. In one of the most brazen abductions so far, two Italian women aid workers were snatched from their office in downtown Baghdad in broad daylight.

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Simona Toretta is one of the aid workers abducted in Baghdad

Up until two days ago Simona Torretta and Simona Pari felt secure in Iraq. They were working in the office of the Italian humanitarian organization A Bridge to Baghdad. But then on Tuesday morning, a group of armed men stormed their office and took the two aid workers and two Iraqi colleagues hostage. No word has emerged yet from the captors.

Taking place in broad daylight in the middle of the busy Iraqi capital, the abduction is one of the most brazen a string of recent kidnappings. Since April, people from more than two dozen countries have been kidnapped as guerrillas try to force foreign troops and companies to leave. More than 20 foreigners have been killed.

Torretta and Pari, both under 30, are the first western women to have been taken hostage in Iraq. A statement posted on a Web site used by Islamic militants said the women "spies were kidnapped to punish Italy for not withdrawing troops from Iraq and for cooperating with American forces."

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose voters already strongly oppose Italy's military role in Iraq, is now under increased pressure to recall the 2,700 troops. After the US and Great Britain, Italy supplies the third largest military contingent in Iraq.

Italians in shock

All across the country, Italians have come out in full force condemning the abduction of the two women, who had gone to Baghdad to help provide assistance to the civilian population. Rallies in support of the two women took place in Rome and Naples on Wednesday evening, with people calling on the government to take swift action to guarantee the release of the two women.

Simona Pari und Simona Toretta in Irak entführt

An Italian Carabinieri looks at the portrait of Simona Pari, above, and Simona Torretta during a press conference at the Rome headquarters of the Italian aid organization "Un Ponte Per Baghdad"

Many worry the current kidnapping could end up like the abduction of Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni was taken hostage on Aug. 20. Before Rome could secure his release, he was murdered by his captors. Belusconi reaped hefty criticism at the time for not doing enough to protect Baldoni.

"What happened when Baldoni was kidnapped must not be repeated," said Luciano Violante, a leading member of Italy's left-wing opposition.

No distinction between civilians and military

An Italian government official called the kidnapping a "declaration of war against the West." For many observers, Tuesday's events send a clear warning that militants in Iraq are no longer making the distinction between military and civilian foreigners.

"This is no longer Iraqi resistance," said Gianfranco Casinis, speaker of parliament's lower house. "These people (hostage-takers) first targeted soldiers, but now helpless civilians, two women whose only wrong was to sacrifice their daily lives to alleviate the suffering of the Iraqi people."

Berlusconi convened an emergency meeting of the cabinet late Tuesday night and appealed for a united national response. It was the first time that the Italian prime minister has adopted a non-partisan approach over the course of several Iraq hostage dramas that have deeply shaken Italy this year. Representatives of the opposition, staunch opponents to sending troops to Iraq, appeared ready for talks with the government Wednesday.

Simona Pari und Simona Toretta in Irak entführt

A young boy, benefiting from the work done by the aid organization "A Bridge to Baghdad", pleads with insurgents to release aid workers kidnapped this week

"We need a revolt of everyone against terrorism, violence and threats," said opposition leader Francesco Rutelli. "Everyone must mobilize without distinctions," he added. "We are prepared to collaborate with the government, with the institutions to save these two brave and honest women."

Meanwhile, Deputy Foreign Minister Margherita Boniver has set off to the Middle East to seek Arab help from officials and women's organizations in releasing the charity workers. Boniver told Ansa news agency her visit was aimed at "raising awareness in the Arab world about how monstrous the kidnapping of these two women was."

Removing aid workers

The abduction of Torretta and Pari, as well as the kidnapping of two French journalists, who have been held since Aug. 20, has fueled the uncertainty in humanitarian organizations with regard to the security situation in Iraq. The long line of hostage-takings and attacks have forced many to consider whether operating in Iraq is worth the risk.

On Wednesday international aid agencies met in Baghdad to consider withdrawing from Iraq entirely. Jean-Dominique Bunel, a Frenchman helping to coordinate aid groups operating in Iraq, said he expected most of the remaining 50 foreign aid workers to pull out soon.

"Following the discussions I had this morning, it seems that most foreign NGOs are preparing to leave, and some expatriates already left this morning," Bunel said on Wednesday.

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