Islamic group says it has beheaded two Italians

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The Independent Online

A shadowy Islamic organisation yesterday claimed it had decapitated two Italian women kidnapped in Baghdad a fortnight ago, promising to show the event on the internet.

Middle East experts said the claims, by a group calling itself Ansar al-Zawahri - "supporters of al-Zawahri", were unreliable.

Simona Torretta and Simona Pari were working for an Italian non-governmental organisation called Bridge to Baghdad. They are the first Western women to be held hostage in Iraq, when they were seized from their home-cum-office a few hundred yards from Baghdad's Green Zone on 7 September.

Twenty armed men arrived in three vehicles and took them away, along with two Iraqis working for Western organisations, Raad Ali Abdul Azziz, an engineer and interpreter, and Mahnouz Bassam, who worked alongside the Italians.

Questions have arisen about the kidnappers. Eyewitnesses said that the men were clean-shaven, some wearing business suits, others Iraqi National Guard uniforms, and behaved with military-style discipline.

Also unusual is the fact that no videos or photographs of the victims have been released. In the vacuum of intelligence, Iraqis and Italians have subscribed to theories that secret services of some kind were involved to scare aid-workers out of the country. Baghdad has seen two demonstrations demanding the women's release.

Bridge to Baghdad has been working in Iraq since the end of the 1991 Gulf war, and Ms Torretta first came to Baghdad in 1994. Ms Pari, a philosophy graduate and journalist, had been in Iraq for about a year.