Italians are facing an extraordinary dilemma after Monday's ultimatum from the kidnappers holding three of their countrymen hostage in Iraq.
By Tamsin Smith
The message to the Italian public was clear: "Protest against the war and against Berlusconi in the next five days or we will kill them."
The men's families are planning to lead protest marches
At least one hostage family has pleaded for people to take to the streets in response, but some Italians say they should not give in to blackmail.
The filmed murder of a fourth Italian, Fabrizio Quattrocchi, has already shocked the nation.
The unprecedented demand for public protests to save his three colleagues signals a new period of anguish for the nation and for the hostages' families.
"We are now in the hands of the Italian people," said Angelo Stefio, the father of one of the hostages.
"I plead for all fathers and mothers to do their best so these boys can come back to their homes... we need everyone to help us."
The hostages' families and relatives say they will lead a demonstration through the streets of Rome this week.
But both the Italian government and opposition are standing firm, refusing to bow to demands of the kidnappers.
The office of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi confirmed in a statement that the government was doing all it could to secure the release of the men.
"Italians are good people who know how to use their heads and would never make pacts with terrorists," said Renato Schifani, senate representative of the prime ministers Forza Italia party.
For now, Mr Berlusconi can count on backing from across Italy's political spectrum.
'We who were against the war are completely opposed to any negotiation with kidnappers and terrorists," said Francesco Rutelli, leader of the opposition centre-left Daisy party.
Quattrocchi's death has shocked the nation
"The opposition must not let its political agenda be dictated by hostage takers," added Pierluigi Castagnetti.
Other political voices warn that the kidnappers' demands are a ransom with a high political price... a direct attempt to divide and polarise political opinion.
The point of view is echoed in Italy's newspapers.
"Yet again terrorism is trying to snatch authority from politics, both government and opposition," writes leading daily La Repubblica.
"The problem now is what to do next, knowing what kind of enemy we are dealing with," says Corriere della Sera on its front page, "but paradoxically to then brand any public demonstration as giving into the kidnappers also means swallowing the terrorists' line."
The call for a public denouncement of Italy's involvement with the US-led occupation has been greeted with unease from some of Italy's peace movements.
"We can't give in to blackmail," says Flavio Lotti, leader of peace organisation Tavola della Pace.
"But neither can we wash our hands with a simple denial."
May Day marches
The first of May is usually a day when Italians march on piazzas across the country in support of civil rights, and more recently in support of peace.
"The marches for peace should continue," says the leader of the Greens, Pecorado Scano, "but not because of a dictator from Iraq."
Italian public opinion, traditionally opposed to the war in Iraq, now seems unsure how to react to this latest chapter in the hostage story.
"We've already had lots of anti-war demonstrations," says Fabrizio, an engineer. "Aren't those enough to satisfy the kidnappers?"
"It's one thing to demonstrate if it's on our own initiative," agrees Francesca, a student, "but to do it as blackmail, as a sort of ransom is different... it makes me feel uncomfortable."
"We should be free to demonstrate if we want," says Marco, "but without becoming political symbols."
The demand was made public in a video broadcast on Al Arabiya television channel, images which have been under intense scrutiny in Italy.
The Italian press examined the pictures in forensic detail, discussing their unshaven appearance, clothes, food and surroundings.
For the anguished families, the video did at least allow them to breath a short sigh of relief: it provided proof, for now, that the men were still alive.
Marching in protest of war has never had any impact on any government. They have their own agenda, in spite of what their citizens may believe. I just hope that these poor men will be freed regardless. I lived in Italy for several years and know how the majority of the population feel about this conflict: it should never have begun at all.
Fay, Devon, UK
I find it shocking that anyone would even suggest giving in to such a demand. The demand shows the terrorists real intentions, power and control, not just over the Middle East but over everyone everywhere. To give in would only feed that appetite. The only protest Italians should consider is an aggressive offensive against the thugs in Iraq.
Kurt, Baton Rouge
Just like Spain, the majority of public opinion in Italy was opposed to the Iraq invasion. This is another opportunity to save the lives of those Italians being held. The public should protest, not as a means of giving in to the captors demand, but rather to save the lives of those being held.
Amanson Anderson, Austin, TX ,US
Suppose the next set of kidnappers ask for a mass conversion to Islam. How many Italians would be willing to renounce Catholicism? To save how many lives?
Mel Tucker, Watsonville, California, USA
If people give in to requests like this, it will encourage hostage taking, especially if the media shows that the kidnappers have had success. If people know that they can get their own way by taking hostages, they'll do it all-the-more. It seems ruthless to allow these men to die, but giving in to their captors could cause more situations like this to appear, and more suffering.
Mr. Hooper, Suffolk, UK
Reverence for life, even if others have forgotten, all who remember must speak out now.
Laurie Constant, USA
I plea to the Italian government to stiffen their upper lip, kill their pride and save these innocent Italians. They are not soldiers and therefore are not prisoners of War. I pray for their release and hope strong will for their families.
Mullah Hafeezud Din, Birmingham, UK
This will not end here unfortunately. The terrorists want all western countries to bow to them. The terrorists will never be satisfied until they accomplish world domination.
Yolanda Pantoja, Chicago, IL, USA
Yes, they should protest. I just try to imagine what I would do, if my husband or son or brother would be one of their hostages. There's no doubt in my mind that I would protest. Blackmail is unacceptable, but lets not be selfish, lets be subjective: anybody would protest, if their loved one would be held hostage. All my best wishes to their families!
Aida Oros, Atlanta GA, USA
While almost all of the friends, colleagues and students I have met here in Italy have been 100 percent against Italy's involvement in the war, I can't imagine any of these wonderful, life loving, gregarious pacifists giving in to a demand such as this. They don't like being told what to do by their "colourful" political parties and government, let alone a threatening group of kidnappers in Iraq. If these people really want the sympathy of Italy, they should release the hostages now without precondition. This would be the most successful way to get both the attention and sympathy of a nation currently glued to its TV set.
Seth, Trento, Italy
How can we (the West) now label these 'Kidnappers' as 'Terrorists'. If my country or home was invaded by a foreign enemy that I did not believe in then I would probably kidnap someone as well if it meant my beliefs and rights were protected. Does this not make us all kidnappers and thus terrorists for kidnapping Iraqi Oil? It is time the West woke up!
Craig Penfold, Vancouver, Canada
Call it the walk of life and not blackmail. Any time we have a chance to save a life, we should take it
Sam Elawar, CT, USA
Perhaps the Italian public could protest in the streets against the kidnappings and murders.
Phil W, Hampshire, UK
Before anyone answers, we should all ask ourselves: What would I do if my love one was one of the hostages? I think the answer is obvious. I would do the impossible to get him/her back...ALIVE.
Nella Alamanni, New York City, USA
Yes, I believe that the Italian people should protest in order to save the lives of the hostages. First of all, the Italian populace has, from the beginning, disagreed with the war and occupation of Iraq. So the kidnappers are only asking them to do something they already believed in.
Shaina Greiff, New York, USA
The answer is simple. You can never give in to blackmail or terrorist threats. To do so once will open a floodgate of kidnappings and similar threats. Even as small a price as a protest rally cannot be accepted in these matters. Perhaps Italians should instead rally against terrorism and show support for their troops and fellow countrymen who are still in Iraq.
Brian Kreulen, Paris, France
Whilst sympathising with families, this is the worst form of blackmail imaginable. Every country and its citizens would become even more of a target. The best response of the families should be to prevail upon the authorities in Iran, Saudi and other Arab countries to intervene and demand the liberation of these unfortunate hostages.
John Ogden, Paris, France