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Italy urges hostage death claim caution

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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 (CNN) -- The Italian government has urged caution on reports that two Italian women being held captive in Iraq have been killed, saying the claims are "unreliable" and part of a terrorism campaign being carried out through the media.

"We, therefore, urge the maximum caution, care and responsibility," the office of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said in a news release Thursday.

Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, both age 29, were working for a humanitarian group called Bridge to Baghdad when their office was raided by insurgents more than two weeks ago and they were taken hostage, police said.

An Islamic Web site that has proven to be unreliable in the past first posted a claim from an unknown group late Wednesday that the two women had been killed.

Then on Thursday, another group claimed to have killed the women, in a message posted on multiple Islamic Web sites used by Iraqi terrorists in the past.

The group -- calling itself the Al-Zawahiri Supporters Group, named after Osama bin Laden's No. 2 man, Ayman al-Zawahiri -- claimed the women worked for Italian intelligence and were killed because Italy refused to withdraw its 2,700 troops from Iraq.

"We decided to behead the spy Italians," the message said, adding it hopes to soon show video of the killings.

This group was also one of a couple groups that initially claimed to have taken the women captive on September 7. In the past, it has claimed responsibility for attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and claimed responsibility for participating in bombings of embassies in Iraq.

CNN has been unable to verify the claims made concerning the two Italian women.

Speaking at the Italian Mission in New York, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said, "We are trying to verify the reliability of the claims. It's being conducted in an in-depth fashion. ... We remain cautious."

He added, "Everything in our possibility will be done in order to obtain the release of these two hostages. So, I cannot fill in details on that. It is a very delicate moment."

The news of the women's possible deaths -- even if the claims were murky -- gripped much of the nation. "We want to hope," read the headline of one newspaper.

Outside Torretta's residence, where supporters have gathered since the first few days of the womens' captivity, the mood was somber.

"The latest news that we've got, it seems like it's getting worse," Daniele Romano told APTN.

The claims of the killings came after a gruesome week for Western hostages, in which a separate group beheaded two Americans and threatened to kill a British hostage it holds.

The humanitarian group that the two women worked for began operating in Iraq at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991 with the goal of lifting the U.N. embargo against Iraq.

Torretta had been in Iraq for at least a year, and Pari arrived just a few months ago. Both worked on a UNICEF-linked project to help rebuild schools.

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