Foreign aid workers to pull out after women are kidnapped

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Italy was convulsed with anger and distress yesterday over the kidnapping on Tuesday of two young women aid workers from their office in central Baghdad.

Italy was convulsed with anger and distress yesterday over the kidnapping on Tuesday of two women aid workers from their office in central Baghdad.

Abducted with a male Iraqi engineer and a female Iraqi volunteer with another non-governmental organisation, Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, both 29, became the first Western women civilians to be kidnapped in Iraq.

A group calling itself Ansar al-Zawahri claimed responsibility for the abduction on an Islamist website, but experts gave the claim little credence.

The abduction looks likely to trigger an exodus of foreign workers with NGOs. A co-ordinator for such groups, Jean-Dominique Bunel, said he expected at least 50 workers to pull out. The organisation which employed the Italians, Bridge to Baghdad, is an anti-war group which has been helping Iraqis since the 1991 Gulf War.

Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, met leaders of the opposition parties yesterday, and all agreed to work "to the furthest extent" to save the lives of the two women. But the government and opposition remain bitterly divided over Iraq policy, with the opposition demanding the withdrawal of the 3,500 Italian "peace-keepers" in Nasiriyah.

People in Italy are struggling to come to terms with the fact that opponents of the Iraq war, who had worked for years in the country, should now be considered fair game by their shadowy captors. The abduction came a fortnight after the murderof the hostage Enzo Baldoni, a freelance journalist and Red Cross volunteer. "It is reasonable to imagine that the terrorists knew very well [the work of their victims]," the commentator Paolo Franchi wrote in Corriere della Sera, "and seized them exactly for this reason. To demonstrate that it doesn't make any difference. That the enemy is us, all of us, and that it doesn't make any difference whether we are pacifists or interventionists, because theirs is a total war against the West."

Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, called for the immediate release of all hostages in Iraq yesterday.

"The secretary general is extremely concerned about the fate of all civilians held hostage in Iraq and reiterates his call for their immediate and unconditional release," said a UN spokesman, Fred Eckhard.

"The abductions of two French journalists and two Italian humanitarian aid workers and their Iraqi colleagues are but the latest incidents in a tragic pattern of violations committed against innocent civilians in Iraq," he said.

Pope John Paul II led prayers yesterday that called for the swift release of those abducted "in the tormented land of Iraq, in particular the two young Italian volunteers". The Vatican newspaper published a front-page banner headline reading: "Women of Peace, Hostages of War."

In Cairo, an Arab League spokesman pressed the kidnappers to release the women immediately. Hossam Zaki said the organisation opposed all civilian abductions, "and this concern is doubled when we know that those women work in the humanitarian field and work for the benefit of the Iraqi people and have no involvement in any activity that threatens Iraq".