ROME – Squabbling Italian politicians pledged Wednesday to put aside their differences over the Iraq war (search) and work together to free two female aid workers abducted in Baghdad -- the third time Italian citizens have been taken hostage in Iraq over the past six months.
Authorities worked feverishly to avoid another tragic conclusion to this latest kidnapping, weeks after an Italian freelance journalist was abducted and killed. In April, militants kidnapped and then shot dead an Italian security guard working in Iraq.
In another high-profile hostage case, the militant group purportedly behind the kidnapping of two French journalists denied that it has negotiated their release or had demanded ransom for their freedom, according to statements posted on a Web site Wednesday.
Two separate statements were posted in the name of the Islamic Army in Iraq, which claims to have kidnapped journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot. They disappeared around Aug. 20 on a trip from Baghdad to Najaf.
The latest kidnapping of Italians took place Tuesday, when a group of armed men in olive-green uniforms stormed into the Baghdad offices of Italian aid group "A Bridge to ..." They snatched four people: Italians Simona Pari (search) and Simona Torretta (search), both 29, and an Iraqi man and woman.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi's (search) conservative government -- which was sharply criticized for not doing enough to secure the release of the journalist slain last month -- met Wednesday with leaders of the liberal opposition. The two sides typically struggle to hide intense mutual loathing, but this time agreed to stand together.
"We need a united and concerted response," stressed Gianni Letta, a government undersecretary and Berlusconi's right-hand man.
The opposition offered "whatever cooperation might be required by the government," center-left parliament member Dario Franceschini said. "Our condemnation of terrorism is total and unconditional."
Torretta and Pari were involved in school and water projects in Iraq. Their aid group has been critical of Berlusconi's support of the U.S.-led invasion. Italy has 3,500 troops in Iraq, which were sent after the ouster of Saddam Hussein (search).
The aid group's president Fabio Alberti urged that the kidnapping of the women not draw attention away from other ongoing tragedies in Iraq. "Yesterday in Iraq, not only were four people kidnapped, but civilians were killed and cities were bombarded," he said.
He said the group's office in Baghdad had been closed for security reasons. Once the hostages' fate is resolved, the organization will assess whether to withdraw its non-Iraqi staff, he said.
Aid workers for a French humanitarian group were on Wednesday considering pulling out of Iraq after their Italian colleagues were kidnapped. Fearing that it, too, may become a target, the group asked not to be identified.
One of its three expatriate staff in Baghdad said they have reservations on flights out of Baghdad over the next few days so they can leave in a hurry if necessary.
Appeals for the liberation of the hostages flooded in, from around Italy and abroad.
Pope John Paul II led prayers Wednesday calling for the swift release of those abducted "in the tormented land of Iraq, in particular the two young Italian volunteers."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Wednesday for the immediate release of all hostages in Iraq.
In Cairo, an Arab League spokesman Hossam Zaki pressed the kidnappers to release the women immediately.
The Iraqi Community in Italy and the Union of Islamic Communities and Organizations in Italy both issued appeals, while the Foreign Ministry obtained a condemnation of the kidnapping from Sunni and Shiite authorities in Baghdad.
Also, a group of several anti-war organizations calling itself the Iraq International Occupation Watch Center issued a statement trying to distinguish the abducted aid workers from the U.S.-led coalition. "They are not instruments of the occupying forces," the statement said.
It was unclear who was behind the kidnapping. An unsigned statement on a Web site known for militant Muslim commentary appeared to claim responsibility Wednesday, but authorities had strong doubts about its authenticity.
In mid-August, a militant group calling itself The Islamic Army in Iraq -- which later claimed to have kidnapped the French journalists -- abducted Italian part-time reporter Enzo Baldoni and demanded that Italy withdraw its troops from Iraq in exchange for his release. Days later, the group announced that it had killed Baldoni.
In April, four Italians working as private security guards in Iraq were kidnapped, and one was executed. Those kidnappers issued a series of demands, notably that Italians demonstrate against Berlusconi's government and the occupation of Iraq. Coalition troops freed the three in a bloodless raid in June.