Italy's foreign minister, speaking to Aljazeera on Saturday, said kidnapped Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena is a "friend of the Iraqi people" and pledged to spare no effort to win her release.

Sgrena, 56, a reporter for the daily Il Manifesto, was kidnapped on Friday by armed men near Baghdad University where she had been interviewing refugees from last year's US assault on Falluja.

"We're doing all that we can to free Giuliana Sgrena soon," Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini said.

"As I said, the issue has to do with a woman who loves peace and who is a friend of the Iraqi people."

Fini told Aljazeera the Italian people have shown solidarity with Sgrena "because our people love the Iraqi people and want peace ... We will spare no effort to release her."

Hope

Several Italian officials have expressed the hope that Sgrena's personal views and her newspaper's strong stance against the Iraq war could aid in her release.

"We hope that the kidnapping is of a political kind. If it is a political kidnapping, the kidnappers will discover that the journalist is one of those who always sustained their own reasoning," Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu said in comments published on Saturday by Italian newspaper La Stampa.

Il Manifesto
strongly opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq and has fiercely criticised Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's support and his decision to deploy 3000 troops in Iraq.

Giuliana Sgrena apposed the
US-led invasion of Iraq

Sgrena was in Baghdad during the bombardment of the city (and for this was awarded the title of merit Cavaliere del Lavoro by Italy's president) and returned many times to describe the daily lives of Iraqis under occupation.

Open letter

In an open letter published by the newspaper, Sgrena's colleagues praise her efforts at exposing the horrors of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq and the effect it has had on civilians.


"In the same words you have used in our newspaper [Il Manifesto] for all these years: You will find a way of telling those holding you how senseless their act is, as you did when you explained to the world the folly of war, of a 'democracy' imposed by the force of arms, of terrorism [on the Iraqi people]".

Sgrena was kidnapped after spending three hours in the al-Mustafa mosque compound interviewing refugees who escaped the US-led assault in Falluja last year.

"You explained to the world the folly of war, of a 'democracy' imposed by the force of arms, of terrorism [on the Iraqi people]"

Open letter publsihed in the communist daily Il Manifesto

As Sgrena, her driver and translator were leaving Baghdad's university campus, which houses the mosque, their car was blocked by two vehicles carrying eight armed men, the translator said.

The translator and driver escaped, but the kidnappers drove away with Sgrena, he said.

Troop withdrawal

A statement posted on two websites claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and gave Italy 72 hours to withdraw its troops from Iraq.


Several hundred people, carrying rainbow peace flags, rallied by torchlight on Saturday outside the Rome city council to press for Sgrena's release.

"We are again on Capitol square as we were for the two Simonas, so that Giuliana Sgrena is quickly freed," said Rome mayor Walter Veltroni.

As a giant picture of the correspondent was unfurled on the facade of the Capitol building, the mayor said Sgrena was "one of the most competent journalists".


Veltroni said the portraits of French journalist Florence Aubenas from the leftist newspaper Liberation and her translator Husain Hanun al-Saadi, who are missing and feared kidnapped in Iraq, would also be put up on the building in the next few hours.

Moral support

Simona Torretta (R) and Simona
Pari were released in September

In September, two Italian women, Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, who work for an aid organisation, were abducted in Iraq by the same group but were released three weeks later.

The same websites then made the announcements.

Torretta and Pari, who attended the rally, were at the side of Sgrena's partner, Pier Scolari, a number of journalists and executives of Il Manifesto.

Sgrena was abducted almost a month after Aubenas and al-Saadi went missing.

In August, Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni was kidnapped and
killed in Iraq by another group, blaming the Italian government for not heeding its call for a troop withdrawal.