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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Gunmen Abduct 2 Italians, 2 Iraqis

The assailants get past unarmed guards at the Baghdad office of a humanitarian group. In Mosul, the governor's son is shot to death.

September 08, 2004|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Two Italian women and two Iraqis, all working for a humanitarian group, were kidnapped Tuesday afternoon by gunmen who forced their way into a building in a middle-class neighborhood.

The hostages work for an Italian aid group, Bridges to Baghdad, that has been helping Iraqis in some of the most violent corners of this war-torn nation. The Italian women were identified as Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, both 29.

"This is a threat to all foreigners," said one guard for the aid group, who declined to give his name. "Their goal is to kidnap foreigners. But we are only a humanitarian organization."

More than 100 foreigners have been abducted in the last several months in Iraq, most of them while traveling on the nation's lawless roads. Of those, more than 20 have been killed.

Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni was kidnapped and killed in August by a group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq after Italy refused to pull out its troops, which number about 2,700. In April, kidnappers from the so-called Green Brigade abducted four Italian security guards, killing one, Fabrizio Quattrocchi. The other three were released.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Tuesday's abductions, but a spokesman for the aid group, Lello Rienzi, told reporters in Rome that the men had identified themselves as being from an "Islamic group."

The men arrived at the house in four cars and told unarmed guards at the door that they were representatives of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, witnesses said.

Allawi's office denied any involvement.

No shots were fired in the incursion, witnesses said. The two abducted Iraqis, a man and a woman, were identified as Raad Ali Aziz and Mahnaz Bassam.

"We had no sign of danger," Rienzi told reporters.

The two Italian women were said by friends and relatives to have been devoted to their work in Iraq, which involved assistance to Baghdad's library and school system. Bridges to Baghdad has been involved in Iraq since 1991, according to the group's website, trying to mitigate the effect on Iraqi civilians of U.N. sanctions imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait.

In August, Bridges to Baghdad distributed more than 250,000 gallons of water to residents of Najaf trapped in their homes by fighting between U.S. forces and members of cleric Muqtada Sadr's militia.

"The thing that drives me in Iraq, to stay there and go back as soon as possible, is the strong sense of responsibility I feel toward the people I work with and for," Pari told a newspaper in Italy after Baldoni was killed.

Ileana Bella, a member of the organization, said in Italy that even after Baldoni's killing, the two women "never thought to come back to Italy."

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was returning to Rome on Tuesday for an emergency Cabinet meeting. Berlusconi was in northern Italy when he was informed of the abductions, aides told reporters.

Two French journalists, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, remain in the hands of kidnappers.

Elsewhere in Iraq, insurgents continued their assault on Iraqi officials and their families in an effort to undermine the U.S.-backed government.

In Mosul, gunmen assassinated the son of Gov. Duraid Kashmoula with a single bullet to the chest, a local hospital official said.

In Baghdad, Gov. Ali Haidri escaped injury when gunmen opened fire on his convoy, then detonated a roadside bomb. Two civilians were killed in the blast, the governor told reporters.

"These actions will not deter us from doing our work," Haidri said in an interview with Al Arabiya news.

"There are many groups and elements that do not want the country to develop."

*

Special correspondents Caesar Ahmed in Baghdad and Roaa Ahmed in Mosul contributed to this report. Livia Borghese of The Times' Rome Bureau also contributed to this report.

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