Kidnappers seize Italian journalist in centre of Baghdad

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KIDNAPPERS SEIZED an Italian journalist from the centre of Baghdad yesterday after apparently receiving a tip off from refugees from Fallujah she was due to interview.

Giuliana Sgrena, a journalist from il Manifesto newspaper, was taken just before 2pm by gunmen who opened fire as they kidnapped her. Ms Sgrena had gone to refugee camp in the grounds of al-Nahrain University.

A group of gunmen driving a minibus is understood to have fired on Ms Sgrena's car as she and her interpreter were on their way to the appointment, forcing them to stop. The gunmen took Ms Sgrena but left the interpreter unharmed.

Barbara Schiavulli, an Italian radio journalist, who had originally planned to accompany Ms Sgrena said she had received a call from her colleague's mobile while the kidnapping was going on. She said: "I couldn't hear anybody talking ... I heard people shooting".

No group has claimed responsibility for Ms Sgrena's abduction, but the Italian government has said it believed militants from Iraq's Sunni minority might involved.

The Italian Foreign Minister, Gianfranco Fini, vowed to cooperate with Iraqi authorities, as well as with US forces in Iraq. He said immediate efforts would be devoted to finding more information about the kidnapping, but refused to disclose details.

Two Italian aid workers, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, were seized from their office in central Baghdad on 7 September last year but were later released, amid speculation that the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had paid a $5m ransom.

Mr Fini said there was no immediate evidence suggesting a link between Ms Sgrena's abduction and the kidnapping, on 5 January, of a French reporter, Florence Aubenas, who works for the daily newspaper Liberation, and Hussein Hanoun al-Saadiher Iraqi interpreter. But, Mr Fini said, Ms Aubenas' case suggested it might take time to secure Ms Sgrena's release.

The general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, Aidan White, said last night the abductions were forcing media organisations to make "hard choices" about how to cover the situation in Iraq.

The two recent kidnappings follow the ordeal of the French reporters George Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, who were seized in August last year and held for four months before being released shortly before Christmas.

"Media organisations face hard choices. They must ensure that their people are not in harm's way," Mr White said. "But they cannot ignore the story. Journalism must not be intimidated."