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Afghan 'thieves' kidnap Italian aid worker
Updated: 2005-05-17 22:16

KABUL, Afghanistan - A group described by police as "thieves" claimed responsibility for kidnapping an Italian relief worker in the Afghan capital, police said Tuesday, reinforcing fears that criminals are borrowing tactics used in Iraq.

Four armed men dragged Clementina Cantoni, 32, from her car in Kabul on Monday. She works for CARE International on a project helping Afghan widows and their families.

On Tuesday, the group of men contacted authorities to claim responsibility, Gen. Jamil Jumbesh, head of the Interior Ministry's anti-terrorism division, told The Associated Press. He declined to say whether the group made demands.

"A group of thieves claimed they did the kidnapping," Jumbesh said.

Cantoni was the first foreigner kidnapped in Afghanistan since three U.N. election workers were seized in October and held for nearly a month.

Security officials have warned that criminals might try to kidnap foreigners in an attempt to force the release of suspects recently arrested in the U.N. case. Afghan officials have said six men in custody, including a suspected bank robber, have confessed to those kidnappings.

Police set up checkpoints around the city, said Gen. Mahboubullah Amiri, a police commander in the Interior Ministry.

"They are searching cars and asking the drivers for their documents, but there are no positive signs so far," Amiri said.

In Italy, a lawmaker linked the abduction to recent deadly protests in Afghanistan over allegations that U.S. interrogators desecrated Islam's holy book at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Newsweek magazine, which made those allegations in its May 9 issue, retracted the report Monday.

"I think that it was a reaction to those alleged revelations, even though the article was later denied," Gustavo Selva, who heads a parliamentary foreign affairs commission, was quoted by the Italian news agency ANSA as saying.

Cantoni's abduction is "painful news, but I am sure that the work of our intelligence together with diplomacy will succeed" in freeing her, Selva said.

The Italian foreign ministry said a crisis unit was working on the case.

NATO's security force stationed in Kabul helped mount checkpoints, it said in a statement.

The multinational troops were "prepared to increase deterring pressure on those who would initiate abductions, attacks or demonstrations in efforts to destabilize the country," it said without elaborating.

Italian newspapers Tuesday described Cantoni as a combative woman with an ironic wit who worked relentlessly for the needy. After her studies in London, she worked in Bulgaria and Kosovo before heading to Afghanistan, the reports said.

"She's a no-nonsense person, very determined, with solid experience," La Repubblica daily quoted longtime friend Giuseppe Mastruzzo as saying.

The aid group said Cantoni had been doing humanitarian work for 10 years and had lived in Afghanistan since March 2002.

"CARE International is deeply concerned and calls for her immediate release," it said in a brief statement released in Brussels.

An agency driver had just dropped a Canadian woman at a house in downtown Kabul on Monday evening when the kidnappers driving a sedan cut off the vehicle and abducted Cantoni, said Paul Barker, the agency's director in Afghanistan.

"Four men carrying Kalashnikovs bashed in the window of her car and took her away. They told the driver not to move or he would be shot," Barker said.

Marco Formigoni, a family friend, spoke to reporters outside the Cantoni family home in an upscale Milan neighborhood, relaying the family's hope "that this affair ends quickly and well."

The abduction of Cantoni was the latest in a string of attacks in Kabul and reinforced fears that militants or criminals are copying tactics used in Iraq.

On May 7, a suicide bomber blew himself up in an Internet cafe in the same area as Monday's abduction, killing a U.N. worker from Myanmar. Last month, an American civilian escaped an apparent kidnapping by throwing himself from a moving car.

Kabul had been largely free of the fear of the kind of kidnappings rife in Iraq until October, when the U.N. workers — one each from the Philippines, Northern Ireland and Kosovo — were seized at gunpoint in the city.

It was the second kidnapping of a CARE worker in recent months. Margaret Hassan, CARE's British director in Iraq, was kidnapped in Baghdad in October and believed killed, although her body has not been recovered.

Italy has had at least eight of its citizens kidnapped in Iraq, and two of them have been killed. An intelligence officer who was escorting a hostage to freedom was mistakenly killed by U.S. soldiers in Baghdad in March.

Rome's handling of its hostages has come under scrutiny, with many at home and abroad contending that Italy has paid ransom for their release.

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