Two Italian Women, Two Iraqis Abducted

Two Italian women working for an aid agency in Iraq have been kidnapped, the agency said Tuesday. Gunmen in olive green uniforms broke into the group's Baghdad offices and took the women along with two Iraqis, neighbors said.

The attack was only the second known kidnapping of foreign women since the wave of abductions began earlier this year. The first involved a Japanese aid worker captured in Fallujah in April along with two other Japanese, who were all released a week later.

The Rome headquarters of the agency, "A Bridge To ...," (search) identified the two Italian women as Simona Torretta, the head of the Baghdad (search) office, and Simona Pari, both 29. The two Iraqis were identified as Raad Ali Aziz and Mahnaz Bassam.

A spokesman for the organization, Lello Rienzi, told reporters in Rome that about 20 armed men stormed their offices, saying they were from an unidentified "Islamic group."

"We had no sign of danger," Rienzi said. He said the women "believed they were working in complete security."

Witnesses in Baghdad said about 15 men drove up to the one-story villa used by the group, "A Bridge To...," and broke in. The men claimed to work for the office of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search), the witnesses said.

A government spokesman denied that Allawi's office was involved, and said that workers had been kidnapped.

"It was a big group," Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said of the kidnappers. "They were wearing military uniforms and flak jackets."

In Rome, Premier Silvio Berlusconi held holding an emergency meeting with the defense, interior and foreign ministers, as well as with intelligence officials, the premier's office said.

Two armed men pushed their way into the Baghdad office, put guns to the heads of the aid group's guards and grabbed the four workers, said Jean-Dominique Bunel of the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq.

One Iraqi woman resisted, but they dragged her by her headscarf, threw her into a car and sped away, witnesses said.

"They have been taken hostage," Bunel said. "We have contacted religious authorities and we have informed their families. We are working for their release."

One of the neighbors, who gave his name only as Adnan, said the gunmen arrived in three cars. Another Iraqi man managed to escape.

Bunel said he knew of no immediate plans by other private aid organizations to evacuate the country because of the kidnapping. A car bombing last year at the offices of the international Red Cross prompted many aid groups to flee the country, although some returned.

However the recent wave of kidnappings of foreigners has alarmed the international community here and has prompted many organizations to review their security options.

Insurgents have kidnapped more than 100 foreigners since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Numerous Iraqis have also been abducted by criminal gangs demanding ransoms.

According to its Web site, "A Bridge To...," or "Un Ponte Per..." in Italian, is a volunteer association created in 1991 to bring aid to the Iraqi people and to oppose the embargo imposed on the country. It has also operated in the Balkans.

The organization was supplying water and medicines to Falluja, Najaf and Baghdad.

Torretta, who headed operations in Iraq, has been in the country since before the war started. She has worked for the organization since 1996. Pari arrived in Iraq in June 2003, and was working on a school project in the capital.

Five other Italians have been kidnapped in Iraq, two of whom have been killed. In April, four security guards were abducted, and one was executed. The other three were released. Last month, an Italian freelance journalist was kidnapped near Najaf and killed.