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Italian women said dead in Iraq, UK hostage pleads
Updated: 2004-09-23 11:35

Two Italian women aid workers were reported killed in Iraq and a British hostage pleaded for his life after the killing of two Americans, as the latest hostage crisis put pressure on governments with troops in Iraq.

An Islamist group in Iraq has said it killed Italian hostages Simona Pari (L) and Simona Torretta in a statement posted on an Internet site not often used by Iraqi militants. The group, calling itself the Jihad Organization, said it had killed the women after Italy did not heed its call to withdraw its forces from Iraq. The women are volunteers for the Italian aid organization 'Un Ponte Per Baghdad' (A Bridge for Baghdad). [Reuters]

An Islamist group in Iraq said it had killed the two female Italian hostages in a statement posted on an Internet site, but the women's employers in Italy said they had not given up hope.

The group, calling itself the Jihad Organization, said in a statement on a site not often used by Iraqi militants that it had killed the women because Italy, a close U.S. ally, had not obeyed its call to withdraw its forces from Iraq.

The aid organization Bridge to Baghdad which employed the two women said on its Web site that the report was "not very credible" and it had serious doubts about its veracity.

"We are waiting and we continue to seek information," it said in a statement on its Web site early on Thursday.

Aid workers Simona Pari and Simona Torretta were seized on Sept. 7, the first Western women to be kidnapped in Iraq. Dozens of foreign hostages have been killed by their captors, but the two Italians would be the first women if the news is confirmed.

In a video issued online by his captors, hostage Kenneth Bigley begged British Prime Minister Tony Blair to have women prisoners in Iraq freed to save him, but his family's hopes that a deal might be done were quashed by U.S. and Iraqi officials.

An image from a videotape posted on an Islamic website, Wednesday Sept. 22, 2004, purportedly showing British hostage Kenneth Bigley, pleading for Prime Minister Tony Blair to help save his life. 'To Mr Blair, my name is Ken Bigley, from Liverpool,' the blindfolded man said in the videotape. 'I think this is possibly my last chance,' the speaker said in the grainy video. 'I don't want to die. I don't deserve it. [AP Photo]

"I need you to help me, Mr Blair, because you are the only person now on God's earth that I can speak to," Bigley said.

Britain said it had no contact with the kidnappers, would not negotiate and had little hope the 62-year-old contractor would be spared by Washington's most wanted man in Iraq, al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Two Americans kidnapped with Bigley last week have already been killed and grisly videos of their beheadings have been posted on Web sites.

Iraq said there were no plans to free one of two of Saddam Hussein's weapons scientists, the only women Washington says it is holding, despite speculation such a move might be imminent.

With time running out for the British hostage, U.S. and Iraqi officials said on Wednesday they would not free female prisoners as demanded by Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad group.

His statement was the latest in a line of hostages' appeals released to ensure maximum pressure on authorities and in this case was targeted straight, and very personally, at Blair.

"I need you to be compassionate as you always said you were, and help me, help me live so I can see my wife and my son and my mother and my brothers again," Bigley said.

He wore orange overalls typical of U.S. jails and associated around the world with images of suspected Islamists detained at Guantanamo Bay.

London won't bend

Some such appeals have reached their goals in the past -- Manila withdrew troops from Iraq to save the life of a Filipino truck driver -- but seemed unlikely to do so this time.

File photo of British hostage Kenneth Bigley is seen in this video posted on the Internet by an Islamist website on September 18, 2004. [Reuters]

"We cannot get into a situation, and I believe the family understand this, where we start bargaining with terrorists and kidnappers, because if we were to, we would not make Iraq or anywhere else safer," said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Even if Britons agree, the ordeal can only add to the strains for Blair, whose popularity has plummeted since he led Britain into the war last year.

"Ken: Save Me Tony," ran the headline in Friday's Sun, the country's best-selling newspaper.

Bigley's brother Paul clung to the hope the video was recent, telling Reuters: "The man is alive ... This means we have some sort of a link."

The body of American Jack Hensley was found by a road in Baghdad on Wednesday, which would have been his 49th birthday. He had been captured with Bigley and fellow American Eugene Armstrong, 52, the first of the three to be killed.

A file photo of a banner depicting the two Italian hostages Simona Torretta (L) and Simona Pari hanging outside of the Campidoglio in Rome September 11, 2004. An Islamist group in Iraq has said it killed two female Italian hostages in a statement posted on an Internet site not often used by Iraqi militants. [Reuters]

The CIA believes it was Zarqawi who sawed off Armstrong's head in a video posted on the Internet on Monday. A video posted on Wednesday showed Hensley being beheaded.

Washington has offered $25 million for information leading to the death or capture of Zarqawi who has claimed many of the bloodiest suicide attacks in Iraq.

Attention has focused on the two women scientists held -- though Zarqawi, a Jordanian who analysts say seems bent on sending horrifying signals to Westerners through Internet videos of beheadings, has never mentioned the two specifically.

"There are no immediate plans to release them," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said. A U.S. embassy spokesman echoed that, saying neither would be released imminently.

In the latest in a wave of car bombings in the capital, a suicide bomber detonated his vehicle as dozens of men wanting to join Iraq's new security forces queued to photocopy their documents. Hospital officials said 11 people were killed.

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