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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 September, 2004, 14:17 GMT 15:17 UK
Fears grow for Italian hostages
Simona Pari (left) and Simona Torretta
Pari and Torretta worked on a water and school project
Concern is growing for two Italian women aid workers taken hostage in Iraq by gunmen who stormed their Baghdad offices in broad daylight.

A group calling itself Ansar al-Zawahri has claimed responsibility for the capture of Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, seized with two Iraqis.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi urged a united response as he met with the country's opposition leaders.

A spokesman for foreign aid agencies in Iraq said most are expected to leave.

The co-ordinator for non-governmental groups, Jean-Dominique Bunel, told Reuters that up to 50 people from around 50 organisations could pull out of the country.

The Pope called for the two women to be safely returned home unharmed at his regular Wednesday audience at the Vatican.

Opposition backing

Italy is still reeling from the killing of reporter Enzo Baldoni in Iraq on 26 August after Rome refused to bow to demands to pull its troops out of Iraq.

More than 100 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq since March 2003.

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

Most have been freed, but 25 were killed, including Italian security guard Fabrizio Quattrocchi.

Italy's opposition parties - who strongly opposed the country's involvement in the Iraq war - said after the meeting with Mr Berlusconi that they will work with his government towards the release of the two women.

The government was sharply criticised for not doing enough to secure the release of Mr Baldoni.

The BBC's Mike Donkin in Baghdad says the latest hostage-taking has moved into dangerous new territory.

The attack took place on Tuesday in a villa shared with other aid agencies in the centre of Baghdad.

Ms Pari and Ms Torretta are the first women to be seized since a female Japanese hostage was held for a week in mid-April.

'United response'

A gang of up to 20 gunmen took the four hostages after storming the offices of the Italian humanitarian group A Bridge for Baghdad.

Ansar al-Zawahri has claimed responsibility for the kidnap of the Italians in a message posted on an Islamist internet site, saying "this is the first of our attacks against Italy".

The name (Partisans of Zawahri) is not previously known, but it could refer to al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden's right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahri.

Mr Berlusconi's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said he had been assured of the full support of his counterparts in Iraq, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

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

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