washingtonpost.com  > World > Europe > Western Europe > Italy

Italians Unite Around Hostages

Opposition Pledges to Cooperate in Ending Crisis in Iraq

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 9, 2004; Page A18

ROME, Sept. 8 -- The Italian government and opposition parties closed ranks Wednesday in hopes of securing the release of two humanitarian aid workers and two of their Iraqi colleagues kidnapped in Baghdad on Tuesday.

The Italians shared a sense of confusion and helplessness with the French, who are grappling with the Aug. 19 abduction in Iraq of two French journalists.

Simona Torretta, a volunteer for an Italian humanitarian aid organization, was abducted Tuesday in Baghdad with her colleague Simona Pari, below. (Undated Photos Via Reuters)

A message posted on a Muslim Web site threatened further attacks against Italy because of the presence of Italian troops in Iraq. "We told them more than once to stop cooperating with the American forces killing Muslims in Iraq. But what is the result? They mocked us," said the note. "Now we announce that the kidnapping of the agents of Italian intelligence . . . is the first strike against Italy."

The note was purportedly issued by the Supporters of Zawahiri, which refers to Ayman Zawahiri, an Egyptian who is Osama bin Laden's deputy.

The seizure of Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, both 29, was the second time in a month that Italian civilians had been abducted in Iraq. In late August, a group called the Islamic Army in Iraq kidnapped and killed Enzo Baldoni, a journalist.

The aid workers were seized by gunmen who barged into their office in central Baghdad on Tuesday. Roberto Calderoli, an official in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government, called the abduction "a declaration of war against the West."

During a meeting attended by Berlusconi and other officials, opposition members of Parliament pledged "whatever cooperation might be required" in ending the crisis, said Dario Franceschini, an opposition member of Parliament. The opposition has been divided over whether Italy should maintain its contingent of 2,700 troops in Iraq, but none of its members called for a withdrawal.

Antiwar activists held a sit-in Wednesday at the Rome offices of the umbrella organization that oversaw operations for A Bridge to Baghdad, the group that employed the abducted workers. They demanded the release of the women, and leaders of the group said they would support government efforts to win their freedom.

French officials took a similar stance after the abduction last month of Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, the two journalists. Leaders of France's Muslim community offered their support to the government and criticized the kidnappers, who had demanded the cancellation of a new law banning Muslim head scarves in public schools. The law, which took effect last week, also prohibits the display of other overtly religious garb.

United at home, the French government launched a diplomatic offensive in the Middle East to win support among Arab governments and Muslim scholars, and a delegation of French Muslims traveled to Baghdad to appeal for the hostages' release. On Monday, a message posted on a Web site demanded $5 million ransom for the journalists and set a deadline that expired Wednesday.

But a message posted on the Internet in the name of the Islamic Army in Iraq denied that the group had made any financial demands. A government spokesman, Jean-Francois Cope, said Wednesday: "We remain in the same state of hope, confident and cautious at the same time."

Unlike Italy, France refused to participate in the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. Officials and citizens expressed shock when Malbrunot and Chesnot were seized, many having believed that France's policy in effect immunized its citizens against the wave of kidnapping and killing that has hit civilians from countries that have cooperated with the United States or who work for private companies conducting business in Iraq.

In recent interviews, Torretta told reporters that the Italian aid workers did not fear violence because "the people are with us."

In a recent television interview, Pari labeled Italian troops "occupying forces." The umbrella organization for A Bridge to Baghdad had criticized Berlusconi for supporting the Bush administration's policy.

During a news conference Wednesday, Fabio Alberti, president of the group, urged reporters not to let the kidnapping divert attention from other violence in Iraq.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company