Criminal gang claims responsibility for kidnap of Italian aid worker in Kabul: police

A gang of "thieves" has claimed responsibility for kidnapping an Italian relief worker from her car in the Afghan capital, in a bold attack that reinforced fears that militants or criminals are copying tactics used in Iraq, senior police said Tuesday.

The group contacted authorities to claim the abduction of Clementina Cantoni, 32, Gen. Jamil Jumbesh, head of the Interior Ministry's anti-terrorism division, told The Associated Press. He declined to say whether the group had made demands.

"A group of thieves claimed they did the kidnapping," Jumbesh said, without elaborating.

Four men abducted Cantoni, an employee of CARE International, in downtown Kabul on Monday evening, the first kidnapping of a foreigner in Afghanistan since three U.N. election workers were seized last October and held for nearly a month.

Security officials have repeatedly warned that criminals might try to kidnap foreigners in an attempt to force the release of suspects recently arrested in the U.N. case.

While a Taliban splinter group claimed responsibility for those abductions, Afghan officials said earlier this month that six men in police custody, including a suspected bank robber named Tilagai, had confessed to the kidnappings.

Presidential spokesman Jawed Ludin said "it is possible" that supporters of Tilagai could be behind Monday's abduction.

"We have information, but we can not give it out because we are concerned about the safety of Ms Cantoni," he said. Security forces are "working actively to try to find out the exact circumstances ... of her disappearance and her exact whereabouts."

Hundreds of police officers manned checkpoints across the city to search for Cantoni and her captors, but there have been "no positive signs so far," said Gen. Mahboubullah Amiri, a police commander in the Interior Ministry.

In Italy, a lawmaker linked the abduction to recent violent protests in Afghanistan over allegations that U.S. interrogators desecrated Islam's holy book at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"I think that it was a reaction to those alleged revelations, even though the article was later denied," Gustavo Selva, who heads a parliamentary foreign affairs commission, was quoted by ANSA as saying.

The Italian foreign ministry said a crisis unit was working on the case, which has sparked anguish across Italy.

"A new nightmare begins for all of us and a new long phase of negotiations (begins) for the government," Italian daily La Stampa newspaper wrote.

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."

Care International said Cantoni had been engaged in humanitarian work for 10 years and lived since 2002 in Afghanistan, where she led a project helping thousands of widows and their families.

"CARE International is deeply concerned and calls for her immediate release," it said in a brief statement released in Brussels.

About 200 widows waiting Tuesday for food handouts from the project managed by Cantoni staged a tearful protest, clutching pictures of her and banners demanding her freedom.

"She was very, very kind, like a mother to the orphans and widows," said a woman clad in a head-to-toe veil called Fatima, who said she was about 50. "Please tell those people to keep her safe. We cannot tolerate to lose one hair from her head."

A CARE driver had just dropped a Canadian woman at a house in downtown Kabul on Monday evening when four armed men in a sedan cut off the vehicle, smashed a window and dragged Cantoni out, said Paul Barker, the agency's director in Afghanistan.

It was the latest in a string of attacks targeting foreigners in Kabul and reinforced fears that militants or criminals are copying tactics used in Iraq.

On May 7, a suicide 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 escaped an apparent kidnapping 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 the U.N. workers - one each from the Philippines, Northern Ireland and Kosovo - were seized at gunpoint in the city.

It was the second kidnapping of a CARE worker by suspected militants in recent months. Margaret Hassan, CARE's British director in Iraq, was kidnapped in Baghdad in October and believed killed, although no body was recovered.

DANIEL COONEY, Associated Press Writer

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