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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 September, 2004, 21:06 GMT 22:06 UK
Italian women kidnapped in Iraq
Simona Pari (left) and Simona Torretta
Pari and Torretta worked on a water and school project
Two Italian women working for a humanitarian group in Iraq have been kidnapped in Baghdad.

Witnesses said armed men stormed the offices of A Bridge for Baghdad, abducting Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, both 29, and two Iraqis.

More than 100 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq since the US-led invasion in March 2003.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi held emergency talks with key ministers to discuss the crisis.

They issued a statement saying they had organised a meeting with representatives of the opposition for Wednesday, "convinced that the unity of the country is the way to respond to terrorism".

One of the Iraqis captured was a male engineer who worked for the humanitarian group.

The other Iraqi, a woman, was believed to work for Intersos, another Italian organisation.

Four Iraqi religious leaders, including two imams, were reported to have appealed for all four hostages to be released.

Contacts

A spokesperson for A Bridge for Baghdad, based in Rome, confirmed that the women worked on water and school projects in the Iraqi capital.

The kidnappings happened in the Wehda district of Baghdad, on a side just off a busy square and close to a hospital.

Witnesses said that up to 20 heavily-armed kidnappers drove up in three cars to the offices of the two organisations and seized the four hostages.

Jean-Dominique Bunel, of the NGO Co-ordination Committee in Iraq, told the Associated Press news agency that religious authorities had been contacted.

"We are working for their release," he said.

The two women are not the first Italians to be abducted in Iraq.

Insurgents kidnapped and killed Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni last month as he travelled to the southern city of Najaf.

In April, kidnappers killed Italian security guard Fabrizio Quattrocchi.

Journalists

A Bridge for Baghdad is a volunteer association created in 1991 to bring aid to the Iraqi people and to oppose the sanctions imposed on the country until the fall of Saddam Hussein, its website says.

The charity has also operated in the Balkans.

The kidnappings come as French authorities continue attempts to negotiate the release of two journalists seized in Iraq more than two weeks ago.

Diplomats hoping to secure the release of Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot held talks on Tuesday with Shia Muslim clerics believed to have contact with Iraqi insurgents holding the journalists.

Hatem al-Zaid, a member of the Muslim Scholars Committee, said: "We are just waiting and hoping the French hostages will be freed."


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