The armed attackers stormed a building where the offices of NGO A Bridge to Baghdad were located in the capital's central on Tuesday and kidnapped two Italian women and two Iraqi support staff, witnesses said.

 

A spokesman for the aid group named the two Italians as Simona Pari and Simona Torretta.

 

"Two Iraqis were also seized by the gunmen. The woman is called Mahnaz Bassam. She is an Iraqi and worked for Intersos for more than a year," Dr Nino Sergi, secretary general of Italian aid group Intersos, told Aljazeera.net

 

"She was trying to develop NGO relations in Baghdad. These workers were trying to help the Iraqi people, nothing else."

 

Quick operation

 

Iraqi journalist Abd Allah Khudair told Aljazeera: "The operation only took five minutes.

 

Some 20 armed men raided the
building in five minutes

"A three-car force broke into the organisation's building and tied the hands of one of the staff and threw the others on the floor.

 

"The militants asked the names of the staff until they reached Simona Pari and the office head, Simona Torretta, who were captured by the militants," Khudair added.

 

"It appeared it was totally professional. It appeared they knew exactly who they wanted to abduct," said one witness who declined to be named.

 

Witnesses said about 20 men with AK-47 assault rifles and pistols fitted with silencers stopped their vehicles in broad daylight in a busy commercial area of Baghdad and raided the building.

 

In Allawi's name

 

Khudair said: "The kidnappers spoke on behalf of the Iraqi government, in fact on behalf of Dr Iyad Allawi."

 

However, Dr Sergi denied that Iraqi government forces had anything to do with the kidnapping.

 

"There is no way I believe the kidnappers are Iraqi government forces. Absolutely no way," he told Aljazeera.net.

 

"The kidnappers spoke on behalf of the Iraqi government, in fact on behalf of Dr Iyad Allawi"

Abd Allah Khudair,
Iraqi journalist

Guards told Khudair that the kidnappers wore military clothes and carried "strange" rifles.

 

The armed men allegedly dragged the Iraqi woman away by her hair. "She was screaming," a witness said.

 

Jean-Dominique Bunel, an official from a committee that groups together aid organisations in Iraq, said he saw two well-dressed men with guns enter the building and take away the hostages.

 

"The guards were unarmed and they did nothing," he added.

 

Imams' appeal 

 

Four Iraqi religious leaders appealed for the release of the aid workers. 

 

The plea was issued in Milan by Muhammad Bashar Sharif al-Faidhi of the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), a leading Iraqi Islamic authority, Muhammad and Jawad Mahdi al-Khalisi from the Iraqi reform council, and Shlemon Wardnuni, the Catholic bishop of Baghdad. 

 

"In the name of God the merciful, in the name of all the
religious clerics meeting here in Milan ... we urge the kidnappers to release immediately and without pre-conditions the two Italians - who were working in the interest of Iraq and the Iraqi people - and their Iraqi colleagues," the four religious leaders said.

 

Aid workers

 

The Italian women were involved in an aid initiative aimed at boosting school attendance in Basra and Baghdad, including in the capital's Sadr City slums, home to nearly two million Shia.

 

An official at the Italian embassy said they had no immediate information on the kidnappings.

 

However, Aljazeera.net has learned Italian government officials were holding emergency meetings in Rome.

 

A Bridge to Baghdad is a volunteer association established after the end of the 1991 Gulf War, to promote humanitarian aid to Iraq and to fight an economic embargo imposed on the country when Saddam Hussein was president.