KABUL, Afghanistan – Four armed men dragged an Italian woman working for CARE International (search) from her car in the center of Afghanistan's capital on Monday in a bold kidnapping that reinforced fears that militants or criminals are copying tactics used in Iraq.
The kidnapping followed warnings from security agencies that foreigners might be targeted in response to the arrest of a suspect in the kidnappings of three U.N. election workers last year.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the abduction of aid worker Clementina Cantoni (search), 32, or demands for her release, said police and the agency's director, Paul Barker.
"Four men carrying Kalashnikovs (search) bashed in the window of her car and took her away. They told the driver not to move or he would be shot," Barker said.
The driver had just dropped a Canadian former CARE employee at a house in Kabul's downtown Shahr-e-Naw district (search) when the kidnappers driving a sedan cut off the vehicle and abducted the Italian at about 8:30 p.m., Barker said. The kidnappers then drove toward a nearby Christian cemetery, he said.
Afghan authorities, including President Hamid Karzai (search), were quickly alerted to the kidnapping after the Canadian woman made a panicked call to Barker, the director said. She made it safely into the house but heard the attackers banging on the car, he said.
Marco Formigoni, a family friend, spoke to reporters outside the Cantoni family home in an upscale Milan neighborhood, relaying the family's hope "that this affair ends quickly and well."
It was the second kidnapping of a CARE worker by suspected militants in recent months. Margaret Hassan, the British director of CARE International in Iraq, was kidnapped in Baghdad in October and believed killed, although no body was recovered.
In Kabul, security forces immediately sealed off all main roads leading out of Kabul, said Jamil Khan, head of the criminal investigation department for the city's police. Officers stopped and searched cars in the city center, checking trunks and under seats.
"Police are trying very hard to produce some good news," Khan said.
Cantoni has lived in Afghanistan since 2002, said CARE, one of the largest and most established international aid groups in the country. The organization issued a brief statement calling for her release.
In Rome, the Italian foreign ministry said a crisis unit that has handled past abductions of Italians abroad was working on the case, and that Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini was following the situation.
Relations between the United States and Italy have been strained over the March 4 shooting death of Italian agent Nicola Calipari — who had just helped free an Italian hostage — by U.S. soldiers at a checkpoint in Baghdad.
The abduction follows a string of warnings to the roughly 3,000 foreigners living in Kabul that they could be targeted in attacks, including kidnappings.
On May 7, a bomber blew himself up in an Internet cafe in the same area as Monday's abduction, killing a U.N. worker from Myanmar. Last month, an American civilian was briefly abducted in Kabul but escaped by throwing himself from a moving car.
Kabul had been largely free of the fear of the kind of kidnappings rife in Iraq until October, when three U.N. election workers — one each from the Philippines, Northern Ireland and Kosovo — were seized at gunpoint in the city. They were released unharmed a month later.
A Taliban splinter group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, though officials and diplomats have suggested criminals — possibly working for factions that oppose the growing authority of the U.S.-backed government — were responsible.
The kidnapping of Cantoni follows a series of violent anti-American protests in Afghanistan sparked by a report in Newsweek magazine alleging that interrogators at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had placed copies of the Quran in washrooms and had flushed one copy down the toilet to get detainees to talk.
The magazine said Monday it was retracting its report. Newsweek acknowledged Sunday there were errors in the story and said a government source told the magazine he could not now be sure that he saw an account of the toilet reference in a military report.
The report prompted demonstrations in dozens of Afghan cities, and about 15 people were killed in clashes with security forces. Protesters also attacked offices of the government, the United Nations and a string of foreign relief organizations.