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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 September, 2004, 16:11 GMT 17:11 UK
Italians unite for hostages in Iraq
By Frances Kennedy
BBC correspondent in Rome

Simona Torretta
Simona Torretta and her co-hostage are against the war in Iraq

With Italians shocked and horrified at the kidnapping of two women aid workers, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is calling for national unity to confront the crisis.

In an unprecedented move, he called in all the opposition leaders for a briefing on the hostage crisis on Wednesday.

There has been condemnation of the kidnapping of the two aid workers from across the political spectrum.

One cabinet minister called it "a declaration of war against the West".

The opposition has pledged that it will co-operate as necessary to save the women's lives, but it stood firm in its opposition to the war in Iraq.

'Brave and generous'

The "two Simonas", both aged 29, were Iraq veterans. One had been in the country since 1996.

In archive footage on Italian TV, they are shown playing with children, at their computers and in daily life inside their compound.

They speak with determination about how much Iraqi children need their help.

Simona Pari (left) and Simona Torretta
Simona Pari and Simona Torretta (seized with two Iraqis)
Ansar al-Zawahri claimed responsibility
First women to be seized since April

"We are against the war, we work with children," the two Simonas told Italian journalists last week, when a mortar bomb exploded a few metres from their office.

"In Iraq no-one would want to harm us: the people are on our side," they added.

A fellow aid worker who has recently returned from Baghdad said they were "very special" people, who knew the risks and behaved accordingly.

Italians are also grappling with the fact that this seizure represents an escalation in the kidnappers' approach.

"Nothing and no-one is sacred in that country," said Nunzia, 69, picking through plums at a vegetable market in Rome.

"These girls were brave and generous: look at the price they have paid."

Giovanni, the stall holder, said the kidnappers have "exceeded any measure of barbarity".

'Peace tent'

Ironically, the aid agency the women were working for, A Bridge for Baghdad, is a long-standing opponent of Western policy towards Iraq.

Under Saddam Hussein's regime it ran health care, education and water treatment projects.

Friends of Simona Pari and Simona Torretta in Rome
Friends of the two women staged a protest in front of Berlusconi's office
This is the third kidnapping of Italians in Iraq this year - but it is by far the most emotionally charged.

As the Rome government activates diplomatic channels, ordinary Italians are also reacting.

Friends of the two women have staged a sit-in in front of the prime minister's office. A "peace tent" has been set up outside the home of Ms Torretta in Rome.

There are candlelit marches planned in several cities on Wednesday evening and people are sending text messages to friends urging them to light a candle at every window.

TV news bulletins are punctuated with live reports from outside the victims' family homes.

These recall the drama of four security guards kidnapped in April.

But the most recent memory is of freelance journalist Enzo Baldoni killed by his captors on 28 August.

Mr Berlusconi's government has been criticised by the opposition and the dead man's father for not doing enough to save him - and does not want a repeat.

Mr Berlusconi appears to be taking his line from France, where there was a strong call to national unity as kidnappers holding two journalists tried to overturn a ban on the wearing of headscarves in schools.

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