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Protest 'or Italian hostages die'

Al-Arabiya TV image of Italian hostages held by insurgents in Iraq,

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Italian diplomat tries to secure release of three surviving hostages. CNN's Alessio Vinci reports. (April 15)
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Would you turn out to protest when told by Iraqi militants that if you don't, hostages will die?

(CNN) -- A militant group has threatened to kill three Italian hostages unless their countrymen demonstrate against the presence of Italian troops in Iraq, according to a video aired on an Arabic news channel.

Al-Arabiya said a group calling itself the Green Brigade released the video of three men sitting around a table eating. It said these are the remaining three Italian hostages. A fourth hostage, taken with the others on April 12, was executed.

In a written statement the group released with the tape, it demanded Italian citizens organize demonstrations against the presence of Italian troops in Iraq.

The group gave Italians five days to organize the demonstrations. Otherwise, the statement said, the hostages would be killed.

The news came as two U.S. soldiers were killed Monday in a massive explosion in northeastern Baghdad during a raid in which they were looking for a shop-owner suspected of producing "chemical munitions," a military spokesman said. (Full story)

Some Iraqis celebrated after the blast, standing on top of damaged U.S. military Humvees and cheering.

On the Italians, the militant group's statement, dated Sunday, said they were taken hostage because they were found spying in Iraq. On the videotape one of the alleged hostages speaks briefly in Italian, but it was not possible to determine what he said.

"We tell you we will show good faith and free them if you sympathize with our cause, show solidarity with us and publicly reject the policy of your prime minister by staging a big protest in your capital to protest against the war," said the group's statement.

"We grant you five days after which we will kill them without any hesitation or any other warning."

The three hostages all appeared haggard with beards that had grown since they were abducted.

Their captors claim the hostages are intelligence officers. The Italian government said they work for private companies.

The killing of the first hostage, Fabrizio Quattrocchi, by Iraqi militants provoked shock in Italy as fears grew about the safety of foreign nationals working with the U.S.-led coalition.

At the time, the militants who killed Quattrocchi threatened to execute the three other hostages unless Italy withdrew its 2,700 troops from Iraq.

But Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has staunchly backed the U.S.-led war in Iraq, vowed that his videotaped execution would not affect his commitment to keep troops in the country.

"They have broken a life, they have not cracked our values and our desire for the peace," Berlusconi said in a statement.

The prime minister's office later sent a top diplomat to Iraq to try to secure the release of the three remaining Italians.

The killing of Quattrocchi united Italy -- at least temporarily -- where the majority of the population overwhelmingly opposed the center-right government's support for the war.

"We must not recall our troops because a band of assassins have demanded it," said Francesco Rutelli, leader of a center-left opposition party.

"The vile blackmail by a band of criminal kidnappers must not be given the dignity of a political response. Italy is and must remain unified and together."

The media also expressed outrage: "Shot in the neck in front of his own grave," said left-wing daily La Repubblica. "Horror in Iraq, one Italian hostage killed," Corriere della Sera said in a headline.

Foreign Minister Franco Frattini described how Quattrocchi was executed. "When the murderers were pointing a pistol at him, this man tried to take off his hood and shouted: 'Now I'm going to show you how an Italian dies'. And they killed him.

"He died a hero," Frattini said.

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