Italian Aid Worker Reported Killed in Iraq

Iraqi militants said they shot and killed an Italian citizen after he tried to break through a guerrilla roadblock on a highway outside the insurgent stronghold of Ramadi.

Masked gunmen took three Iraqi journalists to a location in the desert outside Ramadi (search) on Wednesday and showed them the blindfolded body, one of the journalists recounted.

Photos showed the body of the man in jeans and a leather jacket, a white rag tied around his eyes, propped up on a sandy incline. Two masked gunmen posed with their automatic rifles pointed at the body.

An Italian passport and Lebanese residency permit that the gunmen displayed identified the man as Salvatore Santoro (search), and a document from the Italian Embassy in Beirut seeking an Iraqi visa for the man called him an aid worker helping Iraqi children.

The journalists, who provide text, photos and video to The Associated Press, said they were told by the militants that the man had tried to run the roadblock on Monday, hit and killed one of the gunmen, then crashed the car. The gunmen said they then "executed" the man.

The militants stood next to a banner identifying them as members of the Islamic Movement of Iraqi Mujahideen (search). One told the journalists that the slaying was "a present to Berlusconi's stupidity" —referring to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (search), a close U.S. ally who has sent troops to Iraq.

"We have warned all foreigners in the past against entering Iraq, especially those from countries which took part in occupying our country," he said.

Berlusconi said Thursday he was waiting for news on reports that an Italian had been killed by extremists in Iraq.

"I am in continuous contact with [my office in Rome]," Berlusconi said, speaking in Brussels where he was attending a European Union summit. "We are waiting for clarifications that have not arrived yet," he said.

The Italian Foreign Ministry said Wednesday it was investigating to determine whether the victim was the 52-year-old Santoro, a longtime resident of Britain. The ministry said in a statement that Italian officials were not aware Santoro was in Iraq.

The letter requesting the visa displayed with the body said Santoro was working for a humanitarian aid group called Contact.

One of the journalists said gunmen stopped them at a roadblock Wednesday evening about 30 miles northwest of Ramadi. After accepting them as journalists, he said a group of about 30 fighters drove them in another car to the body's location about 10 minutes away.

After allowing the journalists to photograph the body, the gunmen brought the three back to the checkpoint and allowed them to leave, the journalist said. The journalists asked not to be identified for reasons of security. They did not know what the gunmen did with the body after they left.

A Foreign Ministry statement said the last contact that Santoro had with Italian diplomats was at the Italian Embassy in Amman, Jordan, between Dec. 6 and 8. It said Santoro went to the Italian Embassy in Beirut in November and said he planned to go Iraq for the non-governmental organization Charity for England and Wales.

The charity appeared to be fictitious. There is no group called Charity for England and Wales registered with the Charity Commission in Britain. It was not immediately clear why the ministry statement gave a different name for the group than the embassy letter.