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Kidnapping two Italian aide workers

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has called a crisis meeting and urged a united front in the face of the kidnapping of two Italian women working for an aid organization in Iraq. Berlusconi met with opposition leaders Wednesday following an emergency session with intelligence officials and his defense, interior and foreign ministers. "Terrorism must be confronted with the unity of the country," he said in a statement. An estimated 15-20 kidnappers raided the Baghdad office of the group "A Bridge to Baghdad" on Tuesday and abducted the two Italians along with at least two Iraqis, according to police and media reports. Italian authorities identified the women as Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, both age 29, according to media reports. The two Iraqis were identified as Raad Ali Aziz and Mahnaz Bassam, The Associated Press reported. The organization was supplying water and medicines to Fallujah, Najaf and Baghdad, informs CNN. According to the NYtimes, a previously unknown Islamic group claiming links to an Al Qaeda leader took responsibility today for kidnapping two Italian aide workers who were seized from their home at gunpoint. A group calling itself the Al Zawahiri Loyalists said it had kidnapped the two Italian aide workers, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, declared the women to be spies and promised to use them to "burn the hearts" of Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and of the Italian people. The group appears to be named for Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian physician who is believed to be the second-in-command of Al Qaeda, the terrorist group. The group made no demand of Italy's government, but instead said it intended to inflict punishment on Italy for basing troops in Iraq in support of the American-led enterprise here. The two women were kidnapped from their home on Tuesday, when a group of about 15 armed men surrounded their house, barged inside and dragged them screaming into a waiting convoy of three cars. Ms. Pari and Ms. Torretta both worked with an Italian relief group called "Bridges to Baghdad," which provides health, water treatment and education to Iraqis. The NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq, which represents private relief groups, recommended this morning that non-Iraqi staff members leave the country, according to McDowell. The foreign staff of the group itself ``is catching the earliest flight out,'' McDowell said. He estimated 100 groups from Europe, the U.S. and Asia operate in Iraq. Hazel Siri, an officer for the relief group umbrella organization, declined to comment when reached by telephone in Amman, Jordan. Italian aid workers Simona Torretta and Simona Pari were captured when 12 militants stormed the offices of A Bridge to Baghdad, founded in 1991 after the end of the first Gulf War to provide humanitarian aid to the Iraqi people and oppose the UN embargo on Iraq, according to the group's Web site. Their captors have threatened their safety unless Italy withdraws its 3,000 troops from Iraq, reports Bloomberg.

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