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Italy races to save Iraq hostages

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Thousands in Rome express anger over the kidnapping of two aid workers in Iraq. CNN's Alessio Vinci reports. (September 10)
• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide
Silvio Berlusconi

ROME, Italy -- Italy's foreign minister has flown to the Middle East to plead for the release of two hostages ahead of a purported 24-hour deadline by their captors to kill them unless Rome pulls troops from Iraq.

Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, who worked on projects to help Iraqi children, were the first Western women to be kidnapped in Iraq where militants have seized and killed dozens since last year.

They were seized at gunpoint in the Baghdad office of the aid agency "A Bridge To ..." last Tuesday along with two Iraqi colleagues.

Franco Frattini arrived first in Kuwait where he was scheduled Monday to meet government and religious officials, the Italian foreign ministry said.

Authorities in Rome say they are working hard to free the aid workers after Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was criticized last month for not doing enough to free a journalist who was later killed by kidnappers.

"In the framework of the government's political initiatives carried out to bring about the liberation of the hostages taken in Iraq, Foreign Minister Franco Frattini will undertake a mission to the Gulf region in the upcoming hours," the ministry said in a statement Sunday evening.

"Frattini will renew the appeals for solidarity and for respect for the life of innocent civilians generously working for the Iraqi people," the ministry said.

The announcement came hours after an Internet statement -- purportedly from a militant group -- that said the two women would be killed unless Italy begins withdrawing its forces from Iraq.

"We will extend our deadline 24 hours from the issue of this statement after that if we don't see Italian soldiers withdrawing from Iraq we will implement execution," said the statement signed by the Islamic Jihad Organization.

The authenticity of the statement, dated September 12, could not be verified. (Full story)

Rome sent about 2,700 troops to Iraq last year despite huge opposition at home, and has said it will not bow to demands by militants to withdraw the force.

At least seven Italians have been kidnapped in recent months in Iraq and two of them subsequently killed, including journalist Enzo Baldoni.

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